Encryption, closing internet debated by Republican presidential hopefuls

Republican presidential hopefuls expressed concerns about encryption and frontrunner Donald Trump condoned closing parts of the internet to thwart terrorists.
Republican presidential hopefuls expressed concerns about encryption and frontrunner Donald Trump condoned closing parts of the internet to thwart terrorists.

Encryption and the openness of the internet took center stage at Tuesday's Republican debate, with presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina calling for Silicon Valley to help government solve its “tech problem” and circumvent encryption.

While the candidates differed in their stances on the National Security Agency's now-defunct bulk data collection program, they mostly agreed that encryption could thwart investigators trying to track down and defeat terrorists.

Although authorities have said there is no evidence thus far that the San Bernadino, Calif., terrorists evaded detection because they used encrypted communications or that they could have been found out through the NSA surveillance program, the candidates indicated that there would be a showdown over encryption.

Calling the government woefully behind in tech, Fiorina  said that Silicon Valley companies would lend their assistance seemingly if asked nicely. “They haven't been asked,” she said, despite the Department of Homeland Security's stated and ongoing effort to draw from the private sector.

Fiorina also said that the U.S. was using the wrong algorithms to try to find and decipher terrorists' encrypted communications. 

Whether tech companies should build backdoors into their products has been hotly debated in recent months with law enforcement authorities predictably coming down in favor while security pros have questioned the impact on security and privacy.

"The idea of requiring technology companies like those in Silicon Valley to assist with backdoors in encryption dates back to the 1990s," Thomas Ristenpart, Cornell Tech Computer Science professor and member of the Cornell Tech Security Group said in comments emailed to SCMagazine.com. "The consensus of the expert community is and always has been that trying to require backdoors in cryptosecurity would weaken security for average users."  

Ristenpart added, "At the same time, the benefit in terms of preventing terrorists from communicating is nebulous at best, as they could begin using unregulated encryption tools."

An occasionally subdued Donald Trump continued to insist that “closing parts of the internet” was necessary to combatting terrorism because “ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet” as they recruit followers.  “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” Trump told moderator Wolf Blitzer. “I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our internet.”

Those remarks drew criticism from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who said to do so would require getting rid of the First Amendment and compared that idea to the kind of censorship and control found in countries like North Korea.

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