Senator John McCain is calling for legislation that requires companies to place encryption backdoors in their products for law enforcement to access communications of suspected terrorists, provided they have a warrant.
Writing in an op-ed for Bloomberg, the Arizona senator said that encryption provided terrorists like ISIS, as well as criminals, with “cyber safe havens” to evade the authorities. “This is unacceptable,” he said.
Tech companies have argued that weakening encryption or allowing backdoors is a detriment to user privacy, which could be exploited. This is a claim that McCain refuses to fully accept. “This position is ideologically motivated and profit-driven, though not without merit,” he said.
“Americans of course need access to technology that keeps our personal and business communications private, but this must be balanced with concerns over national security,” the senator wrote, claiming Silicon Valley must play a role in the fight against terror.
McCain proposes a need for alternatives to end-to-end encryption, which would allow manufacturers to open up users’ data under a warrant, referencing 1990s legislation that allows for wiretapping as inspiration. However, Owen Barder, the European director of the Center for Global Development has called McCain’s comments “embarrassingly incoherent.”
The use of encryption by terrorists has been an issue of heated debate. McCain is just the latest politician to make such remarks. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein for example are continuing work on a bill that would require companies to decrypt data if there’s a court order. However, these would still only be domestic laws and, if ever passed, would have no effect on the use of encryption by terrorists in other countries.
Encryption has many ardent defenders, such as the EFF, in the face of these proposals and criticisms. Just recently, a Harvard study challenged law enforcement’s stance that encryption severely inhibits investigations while NSA director Michael Rogers has even questioned the need for this ongoing debate.