Obama, Clinton meet for secret lunch as they pursue tech industry over encryption, terror threats

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) listens to U.S. President Barack Obama. © Kevin Lamarque
Before their secret White House lunch on Monday, US President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton appeared to back bypassing encryption technology to stop terrorists.

"They discussed a wide array of topics, but this was mostly a social occasion," Josh Earnest, White House press secretary said of the hour and a half lunch meeting. No press was notified in advance and no photographers were allowed.

If Clinton and Obama weren’t taking a break from politics, encryption surely was one of the “wide array of topics” discussed, as both have addressed it recently. The ability of tech-savvy smartphone users to protect their communications with non-decipherable codes has become an issue of national security, especially following the Paris attacks in November.

"You're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, etcetera,” Clinton said to the Brookings Institution’s pro-Israel Saban Forum on Sunday, the Intercept reported. “But if we truly are in a war against terrorism, and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we've got to shut off their means of communicating. It's more complicated with some of what they do on encrypted apps, and I'm well aware of that, and that requires even more thinking about how to do it."

“We’re going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy their would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space,” Clinton continued.

In contrast, Obama offered one line to hint at encryption in his speech from the Oval Office on Sunday.

“I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” he said. No mention was made to legislation, possibly because Obama reportedly gave up on the idea in September, according to The Washington Post.

In its reporting, the Post also quoted Robert S. Litt, second General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as saying “a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement” would change Obama’s mind.

Intelligence and military community members raised the issue of encryption following the November 13 Paris attack, and since then Clinton has been more outspoken, saying, “we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy.” She made her comment on November 19 at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While both Clinton and Obama present the issue as one that must balance civil liberties with national security, opponents of a government “backdoor” into encryption systems say the idea is just impossible. Once encryption is breached systematically, even with an exclusive key only for law enforcement purposes, the entire system that encryption is based upon becomes vulnerable, even to terrorists, members of the tech industry explain. To Clinton, that impossibility is just a solution that “requires even more thinking about how to do it.”

The sense of urgency is stronger with Clinton than it is with Obama. This could be chalked up to the difference between campaigning and governing, but it may also lend more credence to the argument that encryption “backdoors” are unrealistic. That signaling could very well have come up during the private lunch between the two on Monday.

Aside from “backdoors,” Clinton has also stressed the need for social media companies to censor posts and take down accounts associated with the Islamic State. On Sunday, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, she referenced the San Bernardino attackers as a reason to bring social media under the umbrella of national security policy.

“If you look at the story about this woman and maybe the man, too, who got radicalized, self-radicalized, we're going to need help from Facebook and from YouTube and from Twitter,” she said. “They cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence by this sophisticated Internet user. They're going to have to help us take down these announcements and these appeals they get up.”