Homeland chair moves to rein in 'dark' networks

Homeland chair moves to rein in 'dark' networks
© Getty Images

The head of the House Homeland Security Committee is pushing a new initiative to deal with the proliferation of encrypted devices that critics say allow terrorists to communicate without detection.

The effort by Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) will not force concessions on tech companies, he said Monday.

Instead, it would create “a national commission on security and technology challenges in the digital age,” which McCaul promised would be tasked with providing specific recommendations for dealing with an issue that has become a priority for law enforcement officials.

ADVERTISEMENT
“A legislative knee-jerk reaction could weaken Internet protections and privacy for everyday Americans, while doing nothing puts American lives at risk and makes it easier for terrorists and criminals to escape justice,” he said in remarks at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. “It is time for Congress to act because the White House has failed to bring all parties together — transparently — to find solutions.”

McCaul is planning to introduce his bill in the coming days. The new commission would be composed of tech industry leaders, privacy advocates, academics and law enforcement officials.

“This will not be like other blue ribbon panels: established and forgotten,” he promised. ”The threats are real, so this legislation will require the commission to develop a range of actionable recommendations that protect privacy and public safety.”

McCaul’s push could prove to be a middle ground in the debate over encryption, which has created a rift between Silicon Valley and federal officials in Washington.

Leaders at the FBI and elsewhere warn that the increasingly common use of unbreakable encryption makes it impossible for them to obtain a suspect’s communications even with a warrant.

Yet tech companies and privacy supporters say that weakening the technology would make everybody less safe. A vulnerability allowing the FBI to access someone’s messages could easily be exploited by Chinese spies or nefarious hackers, they note.

McCaul’s idea went over well with at least one of Capitol Hill’s staunchest encryption defenders.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a former cybersecurity consultant and CIA agent who chairs an important House subcommittee on information technology, said McCaul’s proposed commission could help define “specifically, what are those challenges that law enforcement is facing?”

“The problem that I’ve seen is that the tech community and the law enforcement community, everybody's talking past each other,” he told The Hill.

FBI Director James Comey had previously pushed for Congress to update a federal wiretapping law to offer a way around the encryption protections, but the Obama administration has backed off that solution amid rising opposition from Silicon Valley and concerns about weakening of overall security.

The White House has expressed concerns about encryption but also appears reluctant to publicly scold technology companies.

“I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” President Obama said in an address from the Oval Office on Sunday evening.

McCaul initially claimed that the terrorists behind last month’s deadly attacks in Paris had the encrypted messaging application Telegram on their phones. 

However, a staffer subsequently told The Hill that he “was providing a reference point to the types of encrypted messaging platforms that are available” and is not aware “of any specific app on the Paris attackers’ phones.”

Still, the staffer noted that intelligence officials have indicated that they believe the attackers communicated through encrypted channels.

“We know why it went undetected. It went undetected because they were communicating in a dark space,” McCaul said on Monday.

“I can’t say that I have all the solutions to the problem, but I think the experts know how to get there, and I think that’s what this legislation will provide.”

This story was updatd at 5:09 p.m.

Cory Bennett contributed.