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 GoodlatteBob GoodlatteWarning: Lawsuit ads may be harmful to the health of Americans Black Dem accuses Steve King of 'white privilege' in heated exchange Act now on No Regulation Without Representation 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 SensenbrennerJames SensenbrennerAct now on No Regulation Without Representation Increase civility, decrease violence Why Congress needs to reform structured settlements 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 DelBeneWhen can law enforcement access data stored abroad? Only Congress can tell Overnight Tech: Twitter execs divided over Trump | Group asks FCC to delete fake net neutrality comments | Zuckerberg tells Harvard grads to fight 'forces of authoritarianism' Dem lawmakers: Let's explore benefits for gig economy workers 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 WarnerPolicymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Donna Brazile: Congress has duty to halt Trump on Russia sanctions Lawmakers told of growing cyber threat to election systems MORE (D-Va.), was introduced last month with considerable bipartisan support.

The heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Chairman Richard BurrRichard BurrSenate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDem senators urged Obama to take action on Russia before election Senate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's 12:30 Report 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.