John McCain targets encryption

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has unveiled a legislative proposal to force tech companies to do away with encryption standards that don’t include backdoors for government spies. The Senate Armed Services chairman contends strong encryption is weakening the nation’s ability to respond to ISIS threats.

“By taking advantage of widely available encryption technologies, terrorists and common criminals alike can carry out their agendas in cyber safe havens beyond the reach of our intelligence agency tools and law enforcement capabilities,” McCain wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed this weekend. “This is unacceptable. 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.”

Apple created a stir when it announced its iOS 8 software would encrypt iPhones in such a way that no one but the user — not even Apple itself — could invade the user’s privacy by breaking into the devices. FBI director James Comey quickly criticized that move, telling reporters “there will come a day” when people lose their lives because law enforcement can’t see what’s hidden in a suspect’s cellphone. Similar technology from Google has also come under fire from surveillance hawks.

But advocates of this type of strong encryption note that creating backdoors for government access weakens user data protections in ways that can be easily exploited by hackers and identity thieves.

According to McCain, the arguments are “ideologically motivated and profit-driven, though not without merit.”

Indeed, Americans recently learned how easily encryption backdoors can be exploited from reports that the government’s own systems have been hacked by foreign spies thanks to a backdoor installed for NSA surveillance.

But McCain argues that the risks of the criminals or terrorists using encryption outweigh the risks associated with opening digital users’ communications to hackers.

“We recognize there may be risks to requiring such access, but we know there are risks to doing nothing,” McCain wrote.

The Arizona Republican wants the White House to build coalitions “domestically and internationally” to update technology laws to require backdoor access for law enforcement. In Congress, the lawmaker is calling for a vote on legislation to force “telecommunications companies to adopt technological alternatives that allow them to comply with lawful requests for access to content, but that would not prescribe what those systems should look like.”

“We have to encourage companies and individuals who rely on encryption to recognize that our security is threatened, not encouraged, by technologies that place vital information outside the reach of law enforcement,” he wrote.

“Developing technologies that aid terrorists like Islamic State [in Iraq and Syria] is not only harmful to our security, but it is ultimately an unwise business model.”

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