Bill coming to establish encryption commission

Lawmakers plan legislation to create an encryption commission to make recommendations on how companies and law enforcement can work together.

Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. Mark Warner

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) are teaming up on a bill to launch a commission to study encryption and law enforcement.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wants to maintain the momentum on plans to establish a commission that would find common ground between law enforcement and technology vendors on commercially available encryption.

"This is one of the greatest challenges to law enforcement I have probably seen in my lifetime," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee's chairman, told reporters during a conference call on Jan. 19.

It is unclear when legislation will be introduced to create a commission on security and technology challenges in the Digital Age, but the effort would bring together the technology, intelligence and law enforcement communities to share their recommendations.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who serves on the Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters that making establishment of the commission a national priority would help the country address the urgent threat. He noted that new apps are constantly being released that are encrypted or from companies not under U.S. jurisdiction, which makes it all the more important for those communities to resolve their differences.

U.S. CIO Tony Scott told FCW that if the government were to develop a law or policy giving law enforcement access to encryption keys, bad actors will seek encryption apps that are outside U.S. jurisdiction.

"All the really bad people who are highly motivated to keep their stuff secret are going to use the encryption method that doesn't have a backdoor," he said.

Tech industry leaders, notably Apple CEO Tim Cook, have insisted that any attempt to weaken encryption levels in commercial products is a non-starter. In a June 2015 letter to President Barack Obama, the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software and Information Industry Association, which represent a range of leading tech firms, wrote that any special law enforcement workarounds to encryption would "compromise the security of...products and services, rendering them more vulnerable to attacks and would erode consumers' trust in the products and services they rely on for protecting their information."

Not everyone on the vendor side agrees. "I don't think it is Silicon Valley's decision to make about whether encryption is the right thing to do," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told the Wall Street Journal in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Warner, who is a former telecom executive, said there are solutions that could satisfy all sides.

"There are tools we can use in this fight if we can increase and enhance the collaboration," he said. "I reject the notion that the choice is you increase security versus diminish privacy.... I don't think that has to be the choice. This is about security in a technology-driven world where innovation is going to continue."

McCaul said he hoped to address the concerns of tech companies and privacy advocates by having them participate on the commission. At the same time, he is concerned that law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts are being hampered by lack of access to critical information.

"If you can't see communications, you can't stop it," McCaul said. "And that's kind of the bottom line."

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