Lawmakers urge FBI to change 'troubling' encryption stance

Lawmakers urge FBI to change 'troubling' encryption stance
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Two tech-savvy members of Congress wrote the FBI Monday to “strongly” disagree with what they say is an attempt to force companies to install flaws in their encryption.

“There is a difference between private companies assisting law enforcement and the government compelling companies to weaken their products to make investigations easier,” said the letter from Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), two rare lawmakers with computer science degrees.

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers has joined with Silicon Valley to combat so-called “backdoors” in encryption — an access point known only to enforcement agencies.

The FBI has suggested some type of backdoor might be necessary to ensure law enforcement isn’t hindered while conducting legitimate investigations. The bureau has also proposed giving agents access to a special encryption “key,” which is needed to decrypt data.

Bureau Director James Comey has been banging the drum for months about the dangers posed by ubiquitous encryption.

He argues that if everyone, including law enforcement and the companies themselves, are locked out of digital devices and online messaging services, criminals can operate in a "zone of privacy" without fear of being caught.

The debate came to a head during a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Information Technology, which Hurd chairs.

Things got testy when lawmakers like Lieu pushed back against the testimony of Amy Hess, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s Science and Technology Branch.

“We found the testimony both enlightening and troubling,” the two lawmakers said in their letter Monday.

In the hearing, Hess insisted the FBI wasn’t asking for “backdoors.”

“What we’re asking for is not to lower [encryption] standards,” she said. “Rather to come up with a way that we may be able to implement perhaps multiple keys or some other way to securely access that information, or rather be provided with that information.”

The comments roiled privacy-minded lawmakers at the hearing. Hurd and Lieu echoed those concerns in their letter.

“The FBI’s proposal would be a change in the relationship between our government, our citizens, and our private sector,” they said.

The two pointed out that technologists universally agree any built-in method to access encrypted data makes the protection inherently flawed.

“Any vulnerability to encryption or security technology that can be accessed by law enforcement is one that can be exploited by bad actors such as criminals, spies and those engaged in economic espionage,” the two members said. “Moreover, demanding special access also opens the door for other governments with fewer civil liberties protections to demand similar backdoors.”

The FBI needs to move past the backdoor debate, Hurd and Lieu said.

The two closed the letter: “We strongly urge the FBI to find alternative ways of addressing the challenges posed by new technologies.