Dem leader backs legislation to settle encryption debate

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Congress should pass legislation to help settle the encryption debate at the center of a recent clash between Apple and the federal government.

Asked if she thinks Congress should move to clarify the lines between law enforcement needs and the privacy of cellphone users, Pelosi didn't hesitate.

"Yes, I do," she told reporters in the Capitol. "This is an interesting challenge to the balance that we've always had in our country since our founding, the balance between security and liberty."

Pelosi did not endorse any specific policy, though the formation of a new expert commission to chart a path forward "could be a good idea depending on the composition," she said.

The long-simmering encryption debate has erupted since last week, when a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the attackers in December's massacre at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif. The judge wants the company to write software that will allow the agency unlimited pass code attempts without triggering a security mechanism that erases the phone's memory after 10 failed tries.

Apple has refused to comply with the order, citing concerns that creating such code, which it says does not exist, would threaten the data security of millions of iPhone users around the globe.

On Thursday, the company filed an official motion to deny the FBI's request. In doing so, it rejected the agency's argument that the court's order would affect only the San Bernardino killer's phone, an argument FBI Director James Comey repeated on Thursday.

“Experts have told me the combination of a 5c and this particular operating system is sufficiently unusual that it’s unlikely to be a trailblazer because of technology being the limiting principle,” Comey told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee.

Pelosi, whose San Francisco district is one of the nation's leading technology centers, has not taken a side in the dispute. But on Thursday, she strongly suggested her sympathies lie with Apple.

"I don't think it should be up to one judge to decide on the encryption policy as we go forward," she said. "This is not about one case. ... We have to be very careful ... when we are ... taking extraordinary means for our national security to then have that door open to prosecute a drugs case or something like that.

"A number of … our Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee have come out cautioning against any back-door or opening up of encryption," she added. "Not just because it could invade privacy, but because it could impede our security."

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, Microsoft President Brad Smith urged the lawmakers to update the laws governing the encryption debate.

"We need 21st century laws that address 21st century technology issues," he added. "And we need these laws to be written by Congress."

Pelosi suggested time is of the essence.

"Some of this is going to have to move quickly because we have to have an answer for this," she said. "But we also have to address it because people are waiting in line to decide whether their domestic cases should qualify for any back-door encryption when the discussion began as a strictly security measure focused on one particular case."

Katie Bo Williams and Mario Trujillo contributed.