The great encryption debate between Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill is headed for a new showdown as congressional leaders proposed a special commission on Monday to figure out what the tech industry can do to help law enforcement prevent future acts of terrorism.
The announcement by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, echoed statements by President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, both of whom called on the tech industry to do more to prevent acts of terrorism. In his address to the nation on Sunday, Obama said he “would urge hi-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”
The new commission would focus “on security and technology challenges in the digital age.” McCaul said he plans to introduce legislation to create the commission soon. He hopes to bring together voices from the tech industry, academia, law enforcement as well as privacy and civil liberties groups to find more ways to prevent and stop terrorism -- something many in Washington believe must be done.
“The intelligence community, law enforcement and the technology industry have been engaged in valuable discussions over how to counter the use of social media and encrypted platforms by terrorist groups like ISIS,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), told International Business Times. “Undoubtedly there is more that the government and industry must do to attack online efforts at radicalization and terror groups ability to communicate without fear of detection.”
McCaul threw the tech industry a major bone by saying the commission will not seek to create so-called “back doors” that would give law enforcement unfettered access to user communication on tech services. For years, the tech industry has argued that back doors that give access to good guys but keep out bad actors are not mathematically feasible, and it seems Capitol Hill has begun to agree.
At the same time, McCaul stressed that terrorists are using messaging services to communicate with one another in so-called “dark space,” which is a term used to describe services that law enforcement is not technically able to monitor due to strong encryption on these services, on mobile devices or both.
“We should be careful not to vilify ‘encryption’ itself, which is essential for privacy, data security, and global commerce,” said McCaul, according to Reuters. “But I have personally been briefed on cases where terrorists communicated in darkness and where we couldn’t shine a light, even with a lawful warrant.”
No Back doors For Silicon Valley
Nearly 3,000 miles west, most Silicon Valley tech companies declined to comment on the move, perhaps fearful of any backlash that could come from public perception that they are not doing enough to stop acts of terrorism. Even the companies most outspoken on privacy like Mozilla and Cloudflare declined IBT requests for comment. For now, the tech industry welcomes the McCaul special commission, but companies are waiting to hear specific goals the commission hopes to accomplish.
“We’re quite interested in seeing a draft of the legislation and what the goal of this entire process will be -- what anticipated outcomes will look like,” said one employee of a major public U.S. tech company who was not authorized to public comment on the matter. “We don’t want it to become a way to create back doors.”
The tech industry argues that encryption protects user privacy and sensitive data, such as users’ credit card information, their names and anything else that hackers can use for identity theft. Encryption technology, however, is incapable of distinguishing between good and bad guys, and that is why it is important not to weaken this user security.
“Strong encryption stays hopefully a few steps ahead of hackers who are out to steal their data, rob them of their finances and steal conversations from them,” the employee said. “From our perspective, it's an incredibly important technology that protects Americans every day.”
Bad Guys Are Going To Use Encryption
Lawmakers see McCaul’s commission as an opportunity for law enforcement to better voice their concerns and directly communicate to tech leaders what they can do to help prevent terrorist attacks.
“I do not believe this to be a commish on finding back doors to encryption,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX). “It’s how can the private sector be working with law enforcement and academia to solve some of these tech challenges that law enforcement is facing.”
Hurd argues encryption technology is critical to protecting “our civil liberties,” but at the same time, there are other bits of data the tech industry can give law enforcement to flag potential terrorists, such as data regarding who is communicating with whom, without breaking encryptions. This commission will create a setting where the tech industry and law enforcement can stop talking past each other and come up with real solutions, Hurd said.
“It’s not as if the bad guys are gonna stop using encryption regardless of anything that may happen in the future,” Hurd said. “We need to better understand from law enforcement what some of their concerns and i think this commission would be a good place to do that.”