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Paris Attacks Revive Demands For Expanded Surveillance Powers


Terrorist attacks around the world have intensified the debate in this country, a debate over security versus privacy. And part of that revolves over - revolves around encryption of electronic messages. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Paris attacks show why the U.S. needs to be able to monitor communications without being thwarted by encryption.

RICHARD BURR: It's a wake-up call for America and for our global partners that, globally, we need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks.

WELNA: With what's known as end-to-end encryption, scrambled messages and calls can only be deciphered by the device that receives them. That makes it impossible for governments to monitor those communications. Paris has reawakened other once-settled issues. This week, CIA Director John Brennan used a public forum to charge that tracking down Paris has been made more difficult...


JOHN BRENNAN: Because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists.

WELNA: Brennan seemed to be alluding to the public outcry over the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, a program that was secret until Edward Snowden revealed it more than two years ago. Congress overwhelmingly voted earlier this year to end the NSA's storing of those records for good nine days from now. But on Wednesday, GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush promised that, if elected, he would fight to restore that bulk collection of Americans' phone data.


JEB BUSH: If there was ever a time for such a program, it's now. And yet, too few in Congress were courageous enough to defend this program when it mattered most.

WELNA: For Kevin Bankston, who directs policy at the Open Technology Institute, the calls for controversial security measures follow a playbook he's seen before, the lead up to the swift passage by Congress of the USA PATRIOT Act after the 9/11 attacks.

KEVIN BANKSTON: Basically, 9/11 gave the Justice Department the opportunity to pull out of a drawer a bunch of proposals that they already had waiting and, in many cases, had already debated with Congress about and put them in front of legislators who are hungry to do something to prevent a next attack.

WELNA: But there seems to be more caution this time among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden scoffs at proposals requiring a digital backdoor to help law enforcement officials get around smartphone encryption.

RON WYDEN: The idea that our government would require that companies build weaknesses into their technology when, around the world, terrorists are able to obtain these products in the open market, that just doesn't add up.

WELNA: And while Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr is calling for a debate on encryption, he does not think there's really anything Congress can do about it.

BURR: We don't have that choice. A lot of the encryption that's out there doesn't have a key - doesn't have a key for us, doesn't have a key for the courts, doesn't have a key for the engineers that created the programs.

WELNA: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN this week there might still be a way to get companies to stop making smartphones with encryption software that authorities can't crack.


BILL DE BLASIO: I think we have to be very blunt. And if it takes shaming these companies, we have to do that.

WELNA: Fat chance, says the Open Technology Institute's Bankston.

BANKSTON: It simply won't work. It would be like trying to prohibit math. And, in fact, that is exactly what it would be.

WELNA: Even though there's no evidence yet, encryption was, in fact, used by the Paris attackers. The genie of encryption, Bankston says, is out of the bottle. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.