As terrorist threats escalate it’s important to note how much the world has changed since the 9/11 attack in New York, said U.S. Representative Michael T. McCaul in a well-attended speech at the RSA Conference Wednesday. McCaul scored points for setting aside 20 minutes to take questions from the audience of security pros eager to get his thoughts on the encryption debate and privacy.
“Attacks are no longer confined to the physical battlefield, devised by terrorists in faraway lands (e.g. Osama bin Laden). And they’re no longer plotting from caves and using couriers to send messages,” said McCaul.
Instead, McCaul said they’re “going dark” using encrypted and hidden digital communications that are hard to uncover if even track at all. “We’re seeing the impact of the going dark phenomenon every day – effectively you can’t stop what you can’t see.”
Indeed, McCaul said ISIS is urging its follower to secure their communications. “When the White House says there is no known critical threat to the homeland, it means a lot less than it used to,” said McCaul.
The question then, McCaul said, is “How can we promote effective information sharing and ensure that the digital technologies that protect our nation and our civil liberties are not exploited by those who seek us harm?”
While he did not venture a specific opinion on the Apple vs. FBI encryption case, he said encryption is incredibly important to our society and doesn’t want to see it compromised.
“There are no simple answers, but there are some bad ideas, like creating a back door to encrypted platforms,” said McCaul.
Later during the Q&A he said the issue in the San Bernardino terrorist case is that law enforcement wants to get the information off the terrorist’s iPhone. “But asking a private company to expose a vulnerability, I get that.” He thinks the issue will ultimately be decided by the courts, but he also noted technology is generally way ahead of the issues our legal system has to deal with.
He also noted that while encryption has many benefits it’s being used by a range of bad actors, including terrorists, child predators, gangs and criminals in general as a way to hide from the law.
“I refuse to believe our country can’t come together to protect the innocent. It’s driven a wedge between the law and the private sector,” McCaul said. “We need to lower the temperature and all get in a room to figure this out. There’s a lot of bluster and too little rational discussion. The two sides are shouting past each other.”
A Path to Solutions
Near term, McCaul is pushing to create a national commission on digital security that he proposed along with Senator Mark Warner. The Republican Representative said he is “working across the aisle” to get Democrats involved and various segments of industry and academia.
“This is not going to be politicians debating each other,” he said. “And it’s not another blue ribbon panel, this is about promptly developing policy.”
McCaul said there’s urgency to getting the commission, debate and new ideas going now before a cyber or other disaster strikes. “It took the deadliest attack on U.S. soil to create the 9/11 Commission,” he said. “But we need to address this now because after an attack, rationality goes out the window.”
Pointedly, he said terrorists are “moving at broadband speeds. The U.S. can’t afford to move at the speed of bureaucracy.”
Finishing on an upbeat note, McCaul said: “There are dangers in the digital frontier and we’ve lost ground, but I’m confident we can turn the tide with the help of our nation’s innovators.”