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McCain wants to legislate encryption even though there’s no evidence it helped ISIS in Paris attacks

Published Nov 19th, 2015 9:26AM EST

While it’s suspected that encrypted communication services may have helped ISIS coordinate attacks on Paris, there’s no evidence to actually prove it. Even so, some members of Congress are already talking about legislating encryption, potentially requiring tech companies to include backdoors into encrypted products that could be used by spy agencies to prevent similar tragedies in the future. In fact, Senator John McCain already said he’s determined to outlaw encryption that the U.S. government cannot crack.

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The debate around encryption isn’t new. And the U.S. government has been mostly unhappy about the fact that Apple, Google and many other companies offer users end-to-end encryption to better protect privacy, especially in light of Edward Snowden’s massive revelations about the NSA’s sophisticated spying powers.

But the Paris attacks have reignited the debate, as some politicians seem to believe that encryption is to blame for what happened on November 13th in the French capital.

“In the Senate Armed Services we’re going to have hearings on it and we’re going to have legislation,” McCain said. The senator, who happens to chair the committee, told reporters that the current status quo is “unacceptable,” according to The Hill.

When asked if he would require backdoors into Internet products for government officials he offered a definitive “Yes, I would,” answer.

“I think what we’re going to learn is that [the attackers] used these encrypted apps, right?” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told CBS on Monday. “This is a result of Edward Snowden and the public debate. I now think we’re going to have another public debate about encryption, and whether the government should have access to the keys, and I think the result may be different this time as given what’s happened in Paris.”

“The French clearly in this instance had no understanding that this was going to happen,” New York police commissioner William Bratton told CBS on Sunday. “And we’re seeing the ramifications of that.”

But, again, these are reactions based on assumptions related to the attack. There’s nothing to prove the attackers used encrypted apps to plan the attacks, even though that’s definitely a possibility. “Several men who know each other and live in a small suburb managed to plan an attack in secret, @thegrugq ironically points out on Twitter. “And the assumption is ‘because encryption.’”

Of course, not all politicians are anti-encryption, as some of them realize there are certain roadblocks that can’t be overcome by regulating encryption.

“I’m not sure there’s a legislative solution because if we do this with U.S.-based companies, there are going to be other companies around the world that do it,” Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson told The Hill. “Technology is just going to continue to move forward and it’s going to be a vexing problem.

“It’s important to be careful about some of these knee-jerk approaches that don’t give you more security and put at risk your liberty,” Senator Ron Wyden told reporters on Tuesday. “Too often in the past the Congress… comes up with policies that do not do either and that make no sense.”

Furthermore, backdoors into encrypted products could become severe security holes that hackers manipulate for their own gain, once discovered.

Finally, Internet users looking to protect their online communications were able to do so (and even use encryption) long before Apple encrypted the iPhone and Telegram became a chat tool popular among ISIS members. Regardless of whether the U.S., U.K. and other countries are able to add backdoors to encryption or not, chances are terrorists will continue to be able to use encrypted devices and services to communicate online.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.