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Candidates Spar on Encryption During Presidential Debate

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif. have led to renewed calls for technology providers and social network operators to make it harder for them to communicate and easier for law enforcement to track their activities. It was a point of contention in this week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas. Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama have weighed in over the past few days as well.

Companies including Facebook, Google/YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and Microsoft, among others, found themselves taking heat for their stance on refusing to create backdoors, put limits on encryption and allowing terrorists to use their infrastructures for recruiting purposes. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky remains the most vocal candidate in the presidential race opposing more government oversight. "We are not any safer through the bulk collection of all Americans' records. In fact, I think we're less safe," Paul said, during the CNN broadcast. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida argued that limitations placed on the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies with regard to accessing phone records posed a major setback. "The next time there is attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it?," Rubio said. "And the answer better not be because we didn't have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attacked."

Candidate Kasich, the governor of Ohio, argued that if the terrorists in San Bernardino couldn't encrypt their communications, the intelligence agencies would have had a better change of tracking their activities.

"The people in San Bernardino were communicating with people who the FBI had been watching but because their phone was encrypted, because the intelligence officials could not see who they were talking to, it was lost," Kasich said. "We have to solve the encryption problem. It is not easy. A president of the United States, again, has to bring people together and have a position. We need to be able to penetrate these people when they are involved in these plots and these plans. And we have to give the local authorities the ability to penetrate to disrupt. That's what we need to do. Encryption is a major problem, and Congress has got to deal with this and so does the president to keep us safe."

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) also is a proponent of placing restrictions on the use of encryption. "Today encryption is becoming more and more a problem with our ability to see inside of the communications of individuals, both in the United States with each other and with people abroad," Burr said on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday.

Besides encryption, Kasich also argued that agencies should be permitted to hold onto metadata longer. Candidate Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, argued during the debate that the Feds need to do a better job at tapping the IT industry at interpreting the metadata faster.

"Why did we miss the Tsarnaev brothers, why did we miss the San Bernardino couple? It wasn't because we had stopped collected metadata. It was because, I think, as someone who comes from the technology world, we were using the wrong algorithms," Fiorina said. "This is a place where the private sector could be helpful because the government is woefully behind the technology curve. But secondly, the bureaucratic processes that have been in place since 9/11 are woefully inadequate as well. What do we now know? That DHS vets people by going into databases of known or suspected terrorists."

Republicans aren't alone in their call for tech companies to work more closely with the government.

In his address from the Oval Office Sunday night, President Barack Obama made a passing reference to the issue. "I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice," he said.

Nearly three years ago, the President urged IT to share information and earlier this year, he issued an executive order that aimed to step up that effort.  

Obama's remarks came hours after Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on the issue, suggesting freedom of speech shouldn't preclude providers from making it harder for terrorists to use their networks to recruit and to carry out their goals. In her Sunday speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., she took a somewhat harsher tone than in the past against the IT community.

"Resolve means depriving jihadists of virtual territory, just as we work to deprive them of actual territory," she said, as reported by The New York Times. "They are using Web sites, social media, chat rooms and other platforms to celebrate beheadings, recruit future terrorists and call for attacks. We should work with host companies to shut them down."

Clinton reiterated that call Tuesday. "We need stronger relationships between Washington, Silicon Valley and all of our great tech companies and entrepreneurs," she said. "American innovation is a powerful force and we have to put it to work, defeating ISIS. That starts with understanding where and how recruitment happens."

Tech companies including Microsoft have vowed to put customer privacy first, as they should. It doesn't appear the rhetoric of the presidential campaign will die down until after the election next November. Hopefully, a reasoned approach will prevail by whoever becomes the next president.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 12/17/2015 at 3:15 PM


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