Encryption debate heats up after Paris attacks

Ben Johnson and Praveen Sathianathan Nov 20, 2015
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Encryption debate heats up after Paris attacks

Ben Johnson and Praveen Sathianathan Nov 20, 2015
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The recent terrorist attacks in Paris has brought an ongoing debate about encrypted data and the rights of consumers into the forefront. The debate centers on whether tech companies should provide the U.S. government back door access to their encrypted messaging systems.

The government says the ability to read messages is vital to fight criminals and terrorists who use communication networks such as iMessage and WhatsApp to organize and carry out there destruction. 

But Silicon Valley has long argued the need for stronger encryption tools to protect consumers. They also say that allowing access to messaging tools and calls can allow police to spy on individuals and can lead to corruption if used as a big brother policing tool. 

Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution, said there is a conflict between what the government and the tech industry sees. 

“The intelligence looks at people overseas using mobile devices and computers and sees targets and the tech industry looks at people overseas using those same devices and computers and sees customers and that’s a real conflict of their two interests,” he said. 

Despite early reports that the terrorists in the Paris attacks used encrypted messaging tools, there is no evidence to support the claim that ISIS used such technology. 

On Thursday, the Information Technology Industry Council, a group that includes Apple, parent company of Google Alphabet, and Facebook, said “weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.”

Wittes agrees and says encryption is necessary.

“It’s not just people working against bad regimes. Look, encryption is essential to the safety of digital commerce. It’s essential to basic cyber security in a lot of different areas, so I don’t think anybody responsible is making an argument against encryption,” he said. “There is no question that if you weaken encryption to give U.S. or good guy law enforcement access under the right circumstances you weaken the security of systems that also has to protect people against bad guys and so there are real costs no matter what direction you go.”

Since the attacks in Paris, some lawmakers have said they want to allow investigators to be able to access encrypted communication. But, Apple said they would not build a backdoor system to allow the government access to its system. The company said doing so would expose customers to too many security risks.

At The Wall Street Journal’s technology conference last month, Apple CEO, Tim Cook discussed privacy.

“We’ve said that no backdoor is a must, and we’ve said that encryption is a must,” he said. “I don’t know a way to protect people without encrypting.”

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