Recent terrorist attacks have rekindled a debate over encrypted communications, and top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are once more advocating for a solution to the government’s “going dark” problem.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Rep. Mike McCaul, Texas Republican, each aired their concerns over encryption during Sunday’s broadcast of “Face the Nation” on CBS News, attributing impossible-to-decipher communications with the recent rampages in Paris that left 130 people dead.
“[T]he Achilles’ heel in the Internet is encryption, because there are now — it’s a black Web and there’s no way of piercing it,” said Mrs. Feinstein, the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Conversations that occur over the Sony PlayStation’s video game network are encrypted, the senator continued, meaning that “terrorists could use PlayStation to be able to communicate, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
“And we’re not crying wolf,” Mrs. Feinstein added.
“I agree with Senator Feinstein,” Mr. McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said during the same broadcast. “I think the biggest threat today is the idea that terrorists can communicate in dark space, dark platforms, and we can’t see what they’re saying.”
“So, people ask me, well, how did the Paris attack, a very complex, sophisticated, coordinated attack involving eight attackers and a wide conspiracy of others, how did that go under the radar? The only rational explanation I have is that they were using these dark platforms in dark space to communicate that, even if we have a court order, we can’t see,” he added.
But more than a week after the Islamic State terror group launched coordinated attacks on the French capital, authorities have yet to say if the plots were planned using encrypted communications. Investigators have since looked toward publicly posted clues on social media, however, as well as cell phone records and credit card transactions that draw a clear connection to some of the suspects.
When asked by “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson if he could conclusively say the attackers used encryptions, Mr. McCaul responded that “there are strong indicators that they did,” adding, “And that’s precisely why nothing was picked up.”
“In my judgment, they were talking in the dark space. And that is how they pulled it off without detection,” he said.
The Obama administration had been weighing the imposition of new laws that would require tech companies to subvert the security of their own encryption standards so that government investigators could access communications otherwise obscured from unintended eyes, but FBI Director James Comey said last month that the government was putting its efforts on hold.
“The United States government is actively engaged with private companies to ensure they understand the public safety and national security risks that result from malicious actors’ use of their encrypted products and services. However, the administration is not seeking legislation at this time,” Mr. Comey told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.