DHS head 'agrees in principle' with encryption commission bill

Cameron Lancaster

The head of the Department of Homeland Security offered tentative praise on Wednesday for bipartisan congressional legislation designed to confront the proliferation of encryption technologies that block everyone — even the government — from seeing people’s data. 

“There needs to be a discussion among smart people to arrive at the appropriate, balanced solution to the encryption problem,” Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House Homeland Security Committee.

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“I believe we can arrive at that if we have the right people in the room to do that,” he added. “So I’m agreeing with the principle of what you’re saying.”

The comments are the most specific signs of Obama administration support for the legislation from Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense Democratic National Convention event calendar Liberal group: Kaine could be 'disastrous' VP pick MORE (D-Va.) to create a commission to study the issue.

Concerns about encryption technologies, amplified by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about U.S. intelligence activities, have been simmering for years. The standoff was given a fresh face in recent weeks amid an escalating battle between the FBI and Apple over the locked data on an iPhone used by one of the killers in last year’s terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

Defenders say strong encryption protects people’s privacy and is critical to keeping everyone’s data secure from foreign spies, hackers and criminals.

But critics note that it allows potential terrorists or predators to "go dark" and communicate beyond the government’s reach, causing intelligence and law enforcement officials to go blind.

The McCaul-Warner bill would create a 16-member commission to analyze the issue and propose possible compromises. The commission would be comprised of officials from the tech industry, law enforcement community and intelligence sector, as well as privacy advocates and digital security specialists.

The proposal has run into opposition from more hawkish lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who worry that it would merely delay efforts to confront the issue head-on.