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 GoodlatteOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Warrantless wiretapping reform legislation circulates on Capitol Hill 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 SensenbrennerHouse panel to hold hearing on online sex trafficking next week Lawmakers grapple with warrantless wiretapping program House panel strikes deal on surveillance reforms 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 DelBeneOvernight Health Care: ObamaCare signup groups to get answers on funding this week | Dems demand Trump action on opioids | More Dems back ‘Medicare for All’ bill Week ahead: Senate panel looks to quickly strike deal on ObamaCare fix Overnight Health Care: Governors urge Congress to fund key ObamaCare payments | Warren backs Sanders’ single-payer bill | Advocates seek long-term funding for children’s health program 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 WarnerTrump: Why isn't Senate looking into 'Fake News Networks'? 5 takeaways from Senate Russian meddling presser Trump: 'America is truly a nation in mourning' MORE (D-Va.), was introduced last month with considerable bipartisan support.

The heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump: Why isn't Senate looking into 'Fake News Networks'? Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Special counsel looking into dossier as part of Russia probe: report MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGun proposal picks up GOP support Gingrich: Banning rapid fire gun modification is ‘common sense’ House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance 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.