WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The deadly attacks in Paris are reigniting a debate over whether U.S. government spies should have easy access to encrypted messages flowing across the Internet.
Intelligence agencies have long argued for so-called “backdoors” that would enable them to monitor encrypted email messages, chat applications, phone calls and other types of electronic communications. But privacy advocates and technology companies staunchly oppose such backdoors and have successfully beaten back all legislative efforts to require them.
A U.S. security official said there is no evidence yet demonstrating that the Paris attackers used a particular method for communicating, or whether any technology they used was encrypted in a particular way. The Islamic State has publicly claimed responsibility for the killings.
Still, several lawmakers and U.S. intelligence officials seized on the attacks to lobby for backdoors.
“Silicon Valley has to look at its products because if you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents — whether it’s at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris, take down an airliner — that’s a big problem,” U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Monday.
Michael Morell, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said discussions about encryption have been largely shaped by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and his privacy-minded allies, but that a new chapter would “be defined by what happened in Paris.”
Snowden leaked top secret information about NSA surveillance activities in 2013 and is now living in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum.
Just last month, the White House appeared to back down from its push for backdoors. A months-long lobbying push by intelligence and law enforcement agencies ultimately withered in the face of opposition from technology companies and privacy advocates, who argue that backdoors weaken the overall security of the Internet and do little to help catch bad actors.
The retreat may be temporary, with even some U.S. intelligence officials privately conceding before the Paris assault that the political environment would be more favorable in the event of a terrorist attack.
An August email from Robert Litt, the top lawyer for the U.S. intelligence community, obtained by the Washington Post, noted that momentum on the issue “could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”
And current CIA Director John Brennan said on Monday that unauthorized disclosures and “a lot of hand wringing over the government’s role” has made finding terrorists much more challenging.
Brennan also said at a security forum that the enemy has become smarter. “I must say that there has been a significant increase in the operational security of a number of these operatives and terrorist networks as they have gone to school on what it is that they need to do in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities,” he said.
Nonetheless, legislation requiring encryption backdoors is still considered unlikely to gain traction in Congress.
“Post-Snowden, society has already spoken,” a Republican familiar with congressional deliberations on the matter said on Monday.
Friday’s carnage, which left at least 129 dead and hundreds more wounded, came just months after France passed a sweeping surveillance law in the wake of the assault on the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and other attacks in January. It also happened as the United Kingdom’s government is proposing its own aggressive surveillance bill.
The U.S. is also just weeks away from terminating its spy program that collects domestic phone metadata in bulk.
Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush both argued the Paris attacks show the need for the expiring program. Presidential reviews of the program have found it did not lead to any clear counter-terrorism breakthroughs. (Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey.)