Senator John McCain on Tuesday told reporters that he would hold a series of hearings and eventually pursue legislation that would require companies provide the government with access to encryption.
The encryption debate was fizzling out in Washington after the White House announced it would not seek legislation requiring technology companies to provide law enforcement with a back door to access encrypted data. But after Friday’s attacks in Paris, that’s changed.
In the wake of unsubstantiated reports that the Islamic State used encryption to plot the terror attacks that claimed at least 129 lives, the pendulum in Washington is swinging toward government access.
For more than a year, a debate has been playing out in Washington over whether or not law enforcement should have access to encrypted data. It began last fall when Apple launched iOS 7 and began encrypting devices by default. The company also encrypted iMessages and FaceTime calls, as it had since 2011. Law enforcement’s argument is that there should not be data beyond a warrant. They believe that they should have a back door to access such data in the event of an emergency.
Though that may seem like a reasonable claim, security and privacy experts have stated that there is no technologically feasible way to create a backdoor for law enforcement that could not be broken by criminals. They believe the only way to have secure encryption is to have encryption that cannot be breached by anyone — including the government.
For the past year, the debate in Washington has just been a debate. Though there have been many panels, papers and hearings, no bill requiring a backdoor had been introduced.
Across the pond, the U.K. is already considering a proposal called the Investigatory Powers Bill that would require technology companies to assist the government in bypassing encryption. There is also growing pressure for that bill to be fast-tracked following the Paris terror attacks.
McCain’s statements mean a new cryptowar could be kicking off in the United States as well.
On Tuesday night, the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian weighed in on McCain’s statements. He Tweeted he was not excited by the prospect of another cryptowar, but that the privacy advocacy group had been preparing for some time.
The real question will be how a bill requiring companies to provide access to law enforcement is framed. Much of the debate so far has been very vague and hypothetical. Lawmakers have thrown around terms like back doors and front doors, but they have not clearly laid out what they want from technology companies. As the encryption debate ramps up at the same time as the 2016 election, much of that nuance will likely be lost.
This article was updated to clarify that Apple has encrypted Facetime and iMessage calls since 2011.