House establishes encryption working group

House establishes encryption working group
© Greg Nash

Two House committees on Monday revealed the creation of a joint encryption working group.

The panel, composed of four Republicans and four Democrats, will examine potential solutions to the challenges law enforcement officials face as encryption becomes more widespread.

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While the technology is seen as vital to digital security and online privacy, investigators warn it is also helping criminals and terrorists increasingly hide from authorities.

Leaders from the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees came together to create the working group.

“The bipartisan encryption working group will examine the issues surrounding this ongoing national debate,” said a joint statement from the two top lawmakers on each committee, including Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFreedom Caucus chair: GOP leaders don't have votes to avoid shutdown Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown MORE (R-Va.) and ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) from Judiciary, as well as Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) from Energy and Commerce.

“Members will work toward finding solutions that allow law enforcement agencies to fulfill their responsibility without harming the competitiveness of the U.S. technology sector or the privacy and security that encryption provides for U.S. citizens,” they said.

The panel will conduct its work in the shadow of the ongoing standoff between the FBI and Apple over a locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters.

Apple rebuffed a recent FBI court order directing it to disable security features that would allow investigators to hack into the phone.

The tech giant argued that such assistance would create a dangerous “backdoor” that could expose all iPhones to hackers. The company also insists that complying would set a troubling precedent enabling law enforcement to ask tech firms to undermine their own security.

The FBI maintains its request is narrowly tailored to one phone and would not create a widespread vulnerability.

The court battle — set for its first hearing on Tuesday — has become a proxy for the larger Capitol Hill debate over law enforcement access to encrypted data.

Since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., pressure has grown on lawmakers to weigh in on the issue.

The working group is the latest congressional attempt to do just that.

The panel includes some notable voices on tech, encryption and surveillance issues.

Rep. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerOprah could be Democrats’ key to beating Trump House gavel with impeachment power up for grabs Clock ticking down on NSA surveillance powers MORE (R-Wis.), the author of last year’s major surveillance reform bill, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a former tech sector executive who has championed numerous government technology bills, will both participate.

On the Democratic side, vocal encryption advocate Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and tech-focused Rep. Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneDem seeks to curb tax breaks for employee buyouts over sexual misconduct Modernizing NAFTA can benefit American workers A tax reform idea that works for all Americans MORE (Wash.), who co-chairs the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus with Issa, will all participate.

The other members are Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The group’s work will compete with other approaches to addressing the encryption issue.

A growing contingency is backing a recently introduced measure that would establish a national commission to study how law enforcement could access locked data without violating Americans’ privacy rights.

The commission would include representatives from all sides of the debate and focus on bringing together top tech companies, privacy advocates and law enforcement.

The bill, from House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Dem lawmaker wants briefing on major chip vulnerabilities Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content MORE (D-Va.), was introduced last month with considerable bipartisan support.

The heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate Intel chairman: No need for committee to interview Bannon McConnell: Russia probe must stay bipartisan to be credible MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration MORE (D-Calif.) — are also pushing an upcoming bill that would give government guaranteed access to secure data.

— This post was updated at 12:58 p.m.