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US Spies Await Terrorist Attack to Change Public’s Tune About Cyber Privacy

As the United States seeks backdoor encryption access, it faces strong pushback in the form of public opinion. But according to some intelligence officials, that perception could change if another terrorist attack were to occur on American soil.

Faced with a public outcry over privacy concerns and the tarnished reputation of American tech companies abroad, the Obama administration has found itself in a difficult spot. Many industry leaders are calling for the president to publicly disavow the idea of a law requiring tech companies to provide backdoor encryption access.

Intelligence officials, of course, are none-too-thrilled about such a move. Insistent on the notion that encryption access is vital for national security, many are eager for a law requiring companies like Apple to cooperate.

"Overall, the benefits to privacy, civil liberties and cybersecurity gained from encryption outweigh the broader risks that would have been created by weakening encryption," reads the latest report from the US National Security Council.

But if public opinion remains a stubborn roadblock for such legislation, some officials have indicated that a terrorist attack could change the situation.

"…The legislative environment is very hostile today," Robert S. Litt, a lawyer for the intelligence community, said in an email obtained by the Washington Post. "[But] it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement."

Litt isn’t the only one.

"People are still not persuaded this is a problem," a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Post. "People think we have not made the case. We do not have the perfect example where you have the dead child or a terrorist act to point to, and that’s what people seem to claim you have to have."

While the US intelligence community seems to believe that a terrorist attack would prove the need for robust encryption, it’s already been proven that mass surveillance has done little to thwart such incidents. The National Security Agency’s data collection – unveiled by whistleblower Edward Snowden – was launched after the September 11 attacks, but failed to prevent future bombings, like that which occurred during the Boston Marathon in 2013.

A White House review panel formed two years ago recommended ending the domestic spying program after findings that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata had done nothing for national security.

Even if the Obama administration decides to publicly disavow encryption legislation, there’s no guarantee that the US government wouldn’t still carry forward with decryption plans. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the administration was looking into four distinct ways to force tech companies into compliance.

"We’re not promoting those as the way to go," said another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "We’re just saying these are things that could be done."

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