Homeland chair: After Brussels, Congress must act on encryption

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Congress must move on an encryption bill in the wake of the terror attacks in Brussels, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told reporters on Tuesday.

“I think after the events of today, it’s important that Congress does something and that Congress acts,” he said.

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McCaul is backing a measure that would create a national commission to explore how police can access secure data without endangering people’s privacy rights. He introduced the bill with Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerNo time to relax: A digital security commission for the next generation Army posthumously awards female veteran who served as WWII spy The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Va.) late last month to broad, bipartisan support.

Tuesday’s three coordinated bombings in Brussels — which has left over 30 people dead and more than 100 others injured — reveal the urgency of acting on such efforts, McCaul insisted.

“I hope that in the short term we’ll be able to agree on legislation and move forward on this issue,” he said.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken credit for the deadly plot.

It’s the third ISIS-affiliated terror attack in a Western country over the last six months. A coordinated assault in Paris in November took the lives of 130 people, while two shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 people in a December attack.

The incidents have shed light on terrorists’ use of encryption to communicate.

Lawmakers and investigators say authorities were likely blind to the plots because of the secure technology, although the exact role encryption played in each incident remains unknown.

In response, law enforcement has pressed for greater access to secure data. But the tech community has pushed back, arguing that such access would weaken global security and endanger online privacy.

These disagreements were shoved into the public eye when Apple rebuffed an FBI court order directing the tech giant to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffClinton emails dominate Sunday shows Fox News host blasts Dem on Clinton emails: 'I expect more from you' Sunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on MORE (D-Calif.), the top House Intelligence Committee Democrat, said on Tuesday that he did not yet know whether encryption aided the Brussels attackers.

“But we can be sure that terrorists will continue to use what they perceive to be the most secure means to plot their attacks,” he added.

McCaul agreed. Future ISIS attacks would “no doubt involve encryption,” he said.

The Homeland chairman is building support for a national commission that would bring together law enforcement, tech companies, privacy advocates and academics to create policy recommendations that address the challenges encryption poses to law enforcement.

Two House committees on Monday also established a congressional encryption working group to look into possible solutions.

McCaul maintained the two efforts can co-exist.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said twice. “It may be this working group could have good recommendations that this commission idea that I’ve proposed could take into account.”

The Texas lawmaker believes the widespread plaudits for his effort could help it move swiftly. While privacy advocates have expressed reservations, major tech firms — including Apple — and top law enforcement officials have spoken favorably of the offering.

“The amount of support on the outside is so strong for this that i think at some point we’ll be able to move it to the floor,” McCaul said.