CIA chief argues for action on encryption before Senate panel

CIA chief argues for action on encryption before Senate panel

The head of the CIA told congressional overseers on Thursday that the law is failing to keep up with rapidly evolving technology, potentially giving foreign terrorists an avenue to escape U.S. intelligence agents' eyes.  

During his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, John Brennan appeared to endorse bipartisan legislation that would create a commission examining how the government should exert authority over encrypted technologies that protect people’s data — even from government agents with a warrant.

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“The one area when I look to the future that concerns me is that digital domain," Brennan testified.

“I do not believe our legal frameworks, as well as our organizational structures and our capabilities, are yet at the point of being able to deal with the challenges in that digital domain that we need to have in the future.”

In his remarks, Brennan waded into the thicket of arguments over the proliferation of encryption technologies, which shield people’s data from anyone without the password.  

Lawmakers have struggled to deal with the wide adoption of encryption tools, torn between concerns of security and privacy. Critics of the trend say the digital barriers prevent government officials from gathering crucial evidence from criminals and terrorists. But defenders warn that undermining encryption would erode Americans’ rights to privacy and degrade security for everyone.

Sens. 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.) and 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.), the Intelligence Committee's leaders, have pushed for legislation that would require companies to provide “technical assistance” to the government to unlock data in the course of an investigation. The legislation was made public on the heels of a high-profile legal fight between the FBI and Apple over the iPhone used by one of the killers in the San Bernardino, Calif., attack last year.

“What we had hoped is that we would start a national debate,” Burr said on Thursday.

But Brennan notably appeared to ignore that bill.

Instead, he praised details of legislation proposed by Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerElection hacking fears turn heat on Homeland Security Are Democrats trying to pin the blame for their own sins on Russia? Policymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures MORE (D-Va.) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), which declines to set a specific requirement for tech companies and instead calls for a commission to study the issue.

“I don’t know what the best way is, but I know that it has to be an effort undertaken by the government and the private sector in a very thoughtful manner that looks at the various dimensions of the problem and is going to come forward with a number of options — recommendations,” Brennan said.

“A congressional commission on this issue is something that really could do a great service,” he added. “There needs to be an understanding between the private sector and the government about what our respective roles and responsibilities are going to be and be able to find some kind of solution that’s able to optimize what it is we’re all trying to achieve.”