Lawmakers pitch encryption compromise

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A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Wednesday predicted broad support and swift passage of upcoming legislation to establish a national commission exploring how police can get at encrypted data without endangering Americans’ privacy.

The measure, from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerDemocrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal Democratic tax bill targets foreign reinsurance transactions Leahy wants Judiciary hearing on Yahoo MORE (D-Va.), is set to drop early next week, the duo said during a Bipartisan Policy Center event.  

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“I predict it gets a lot of momentum,” McCaul said. “I do believe the administration will be supportive.”

The bill is intended to cut through the heated rhetoric that has defined the encryption debate in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI and law enforcement officials have warned that extremists are increasingly using encrypted platforms to “go dark” and hide their plans from authorities. They are calling on tech companies to provide investigators with guaranteed access to secure data.

But the tech industry and privacy advocates have resisted. They insist such guarantees would create “back doors,” or security vulnerabilities, that hackers and spies could exploit.

Each side has dug in its heels, most recently over Apple’s defiance of an FBI court order directing the company to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The tech industry strongly backed Apple’s decision, which CEO Tim Cook said would require the creation of software that amounted to a “back door.”

The FBI shot back, saying its request of Apple is “quite narrow."

“My fear is that we’re talking past each other,” Warner said. “This is not going to get fixed.”

The McCaul-Warner commission would consist of 16 members, including tech industry executives, privacy advocates, cryptologists, law enforcement officials and members of the intelligence community.

Apple has backed the endeavor and said it would participate.

Modeled after the 9/11 Commission, the group would have six months to create an interim report, and a year to deliver its full findings. Its scope would expand beyond encryption, exploring more broadly how authorities can maintain security with the proliferation of modern technology.

“It is a challenge to make security work in a digital environment,” Warner said.

The panel would provide recommendations to Congress and the White House on what technological solutions or legislative proposals would most effectively address these challenges.

Several lawmakers want Congress to move more swiftly.

Sens. Richard BurrRichard BurrDem groups invest big in Bayh in Ind. Senate race The Trail 2016: Fight night Poll finds races for president, Senate tight in North Carolina MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinSenate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override WH tried to stop Intel Dems' statement on Russian hacking: report MORE (D-Calif.) — the upper chamber's Intelligence Committee leaders — are working on a bill that would give law enforcement better access to encrypted data.

“I don’t think a commission is necessarily the right thing when you know what the problem is. And we know what the problem is,” Burr told reporters last month.

A tech-focused, privacy-minded coalition also believes Congress shouldn’t touch encryption standards at all, and have strongly opposed the Burr-Feinstein efforts.

Given this heated back-and-forth, many think any encryption bill is a non-starter, especially during an election year.

But McCaul and Warner have pitched their bill as a compromise solution that could actually move.

“It’s the only route I see that is solution-oriented,” McCaul said.

“This could be a case where we prove the pundits wrong,” Warner added.