Republican Candidates Hit Silicon Valley for Encryption, but Plead for Help on Terrorism

Republican candidates on encryption
Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015. Mike Blake/Reuters

Does encryption make Americans more or less safe? That question was at the heart of the discussion over Silicon Valley at Tuesday's presidential debate.

It was fitting that Carly Fiorina fielded the most pointed question about Silicon Valley. The former Hewlett-Packard (HP) CEO was asked directly whether tech companies were helping or hurting in the fight against terrorism.

Apple and Google have both adopted encryption on their phones in 2014. "We may not be able to identify and stop terrorists who are using social media to recruit, plan and execute an attack in our country," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey said about the growth of consumer encryption.

Fiorina danced around the encryption question and said the government needs to be doing more to work with tech giants. Fiorina recalled that in the aftermath of 9/11, HP was approached by law enforcement and she gave them help, referring to her diverting a shipment of servers bound for commercial sale over to the NSA. Tech companies "don't need to be forced, they need to be asked," she said.

Apple's CEO Tim Cook opposes "backdoors" in encryption in iPhones, saying that they make the devices more accessible to anyone, not just the government.

"The consensus of the expert community is and always has been that trying to require backdoors in cryptosecurity would weaken security for average users. 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," Thomas Ristenpart, Cornell Tech Computer Science Professor and memeber of the Cornell Tech Security Group, says.

Fiorina also said the tech industry could aid the fight against terrorism by helping the government upgrade its own technology, which she says is far behind the private sector. She noted that law enforcement missed the Tsarnaev brothers, who killed six in the Boston Marathon Bombing and the San Bernardino couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed dozens in a shooting in California were both missed as threats. In the San Bernardino case, the F.B.I. appeared to miss calls for violence by Malik on social media.

Donald Trump, who recently advocated "closing the internet up" to stop ISIS from recruiting online, also looked for more cooperation from tech, "We should use our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds so ISIS cannot use the internet," Trump said. "We should penetrate the internet and figure out where ISIS is and everything about ISIS and we can do that."

Trump said he would remain open to closing areas of the internet "if we are at war with someone." Although his response was short a technical solution of accomplishing it.

Ohio governor John Kasich was direct when the topic of Silicon Valley cooperation in anti-terrorism came up. "Because the people in San Bernardino's phone was encrypted, because they couldn't see who they were talking to, it was lost."