The ongoing political discourse over encrypted Internet communications used by potential terrorists sparked some major fireworks in last night's GOP presidential debate.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was booed by some in the Las Vegas crowd when he called for "getting our smartest minds to infiltrate [ISIS's] Internet." In reaction to the boos, Trump told the crowd, "You're objecting to infiltrating their communications -- I don't get that."
It wasn't only some in the crowd that objected to Trump's view. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took Trump to task, saying Trump had argued to "close the Internet, which defies the First Amendment...Are you going to change the Constitution?"
Trump attempted to clarify, telling Paul that terrorists "can kill us...I'm not closing the Internet, but spotting" terrorist communications.
After the debate, CBS News reporter Major Garrett asked Trump about what happens when U.S. security needs conflict with the Bill of Rights. Trump said: “I have always come down on the side of security. To me it’s the most important. I hate it, I hate the concept of it, but we are dealing with some very bad dudes.”
Trump didn't use the word "encryption" in his comments, but his remarks touched on the ongoing national debate over encryption that erupted again at the event, sponsored by CNN and Facebook. Deadly ISIS terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif. and Paris in the past month have fueled the conversation.
Last week, FBI Director James Comey told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that tech companies providing smartphone encryption tools should voluntarily find ways to turn over to a judge Internet messages suspected of being terrorist-related.
Comey said he has been meeting with tech leaders, suggesting they change their business models to find ways around end-to-end encryption. That technology is used in recent versions of iPhones and some Android phones; there are also hundreds of free and low-cost apps that can encrypt text, email and voice communications. "It's actually not a technical issue; it's a business model question," Comey told the Senate panel.
Comey also assured senators that that encrypted communications do pose security risks. One of two terrorist attackers in May in Garland, Texas, had exchanged 109 smartphone messages with an overseas terrorist, he said. "We have no idea what he said because it was encrypted," Comey said. "That is a big problem."
During the latest GOP debate, candidate Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Corp., seemed to support Comey's call for voluntary private sector help on encryption. When asked if companies should be forced to break encryption, she responded, "They do not need to be forced; they need to be asked" to find legal ways to break encrypted communications used by terrorists, she said.
Fiorina suggested, without elaborating, that new algorithms could be used to break into covert communications when deemed necessary by a judge. She said that kind of technology can be made available by the private sector, adding, "the government is woefully behind the technology curve" and even "incompetent" and "corrupt." As an example of that incompetence, she blasted the Obama Administration for its problems with the launch of the Healthcare.gov website in 2014.
Fiorina told a story of a time when she was HP CEO and she cooperated with federal law enforcement officials after the 9/11 attacks. She said officials urged her to stop a truck carrying HP computer equipment that was potentially connected to terrorism. She ordered the truck stopped, and suggested that other leaders in the private sector would do the same when confronted with questions of national security.
Other GOP candidates took a harder line on encryption policy. Former New York Gov. George Pataki said he would work as president "for a law on tech firms to prevent encryption." U.S Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he agreed with Pataki, without elaborating.
Both Pataki and Graham appeared in an earlier debate with two other candidates, while nine candidates -- including Trump, Paul and Fiorina -- competed in the main event.
President Obama said in a Dec. 6 speech from the Oval Office that he “will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”
His comment alarmed some privacy advocates, who wonder how far Obama intends to go. However, the Obama Administration is not currently seeking a legislative remedy to deal with encrypted communications that could be used by criminals and terrorists.