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McCain: Encryption ‘Eroding’ U.S. Digital Advantage in National Security

The United States is losing one aspect of its competitive advantage in national security, and the culprit is encryption, according to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.

“Encryption is eroding the digital advantage our national security and intelligence officials once enjoyed,” McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday at hearing on cybersecurity and national security. “Encryption is now ubiquitous across the counterterrorism fight—providing an avenue for recruitment and radicalization, as well as the planning and coordination of attacks that poses an increasingly difficult challenge to intelligence collection, military operations, and law enforcement.”

McCain said he’s worried that end-to-end encryption, now a default setting on some services and devices, has made it so “even the least-sophisticated lone wolves can operate in digital secrecy.”

The issue of encryption and counterterrorism intensified earlier this year when the government attempted to force Apple Inc. to provide software to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The debate, which resulted in Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey testifying in the House over the case, ended when the agency hired a contractor to unlock the phone.

McCain on Thursday said that the committee invited Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook to testify at the hearing, but that he’d declined.

“While we must recognize that that authoritarian regimes are eager to gain keys to encrypted software so they can further their own abusive policies, we must also resist slipping into a false moral equivalence,” McCain said. “Complying with valid search warrants in countries that uphold the rule of law does not create an obligation for tech companies to assist repressive regimes that undermine the rule of law in suppressing dissent or violating basic human rights.”

McCain added that “meeting all efforts to reach a middle ground with absolute resistance, as too many tech companies have done,” isn’t an option in the encryption debate.