The Debate Around Data Encryption

Whether your data exists in the cloud or on a hard drive, investing in its encryption has probably crossed your mind. As terrorism continues to scar the global climate, the ability of consumers to encrypt their data has become a matter of political debate; some officials believe that consumer encryption presents a substantial threat to national security, while privacy advocates strive to further limit the ability of the government to pry through citizens’ personal information without a warrant.

paris attacksThe tragic attacks on Paris last Friday have only further fueled the topic; CIA director John Brennan stated that he hoped the violence would serve as “a wakeup call” to those who oppose government surveillance in favor of personal privacy. He continued, “There are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult both technically as well as legally for intelligence securities to have the insight that they need to uncover [important public safety information].”

Brennan blamed Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection for what he believes to be a recently heightened insecurity within the U.S. and global climates: “There have been some policy and legal and other actions that make our ability, collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging.”

FBI director James Comey also claims that encryption is a national security threat, claiming that it enables criminals to “go dark.”

This debate gains speed as the 2016 primary debates continue to unfold, forcing candidates to identify their positions in a very new-age problem.

Most of the Republican candidates have already taken a side and let it be known; the common consensus among G.O.P. members is that a consumer’s right to data encryption is trumped by the societal value of government surveillance.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is the exception to the rule, as he stated last week that governments should have to require warrants to access people’s communications. His statements responding directly to encryption are pending (a relevant distinction to make given that encrypted information is extremely difficult to access, even with a warrant).

Democratic candidates have slightly more variant opinions. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been outspoken regarding his opposition to government surveillance and voiced his intention to shut down the NSA’s surveillance program at the first Democratic primary debate.

hillary clintonFormer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a less clearly outlined opinion; she supported the controversial PATRIOT Act in 2001 and more recently claimed that the recently passed Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) did not adequately encourage tech companies to share information with the US government. Conversely, she endorsed the USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA’s bulk data collection program, and applauded its ability “to protect our security and civil liberties.”

Clinton freely admits that the encryption/cybersecurity issue is “a classic hard choice.”

“I would be the first to say I don’t have an answer,” she said. “I think there are really strong, legitimate arguments on both sides.”

The issue may boil down to the amount of trust US citizens have in their government; they have to guess whether the government will protect them or oppress them with the power of their private information.