House challenges Obama on 'backdoor' surveillance

House lawmakers this week tacked on two amendments to a key funding bill in an effort to stymie what they see as attempts by the Obama administration to weaken encryption.

One amendment, from Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeSenate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Texas New Members 2019 Cook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column MORE (R-Texas) would bar the government from forcing a company to alter its security measures in order to surveil users. Critics have termed those practices "backdoor" surveillance.

The other, from Lofgren and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), would withhold funds related to setting cryptographic guidelines unless those suggestions would improve information security.

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Both were approved by overwhelming majorities as the bill was debated Tuesday and Wednesday, although it's unlikely the Senate will take them up as well.

Congress this week has been considering the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act.

The bill funds a number of agencies critical to encryption quality in the U.S., such as the Justice and Commerce Departments. The DOJ houses the FBI, while Commerce includes a standards-setting agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

As they have on previous budget bills, the liberal and libertarian wings of Congress came together this week to try and push through amendments they think are necessary to stopping the government from degrading encryption.

“That’s all we can do at this point,” Lofgren told the Hill.

It’s a battle that has been playing out since government leaker Edward Snowden in 2013 disclosed government spying efforts.

Several documents from Snowden’s file indicated the National Security Agency (NSA) had worked with NIST to deliberately introduce flaws into cryptographic standards that NIST publishes. Those guidelines had been considered the gold standard for locking down data from prying eyes.

More recently, the Obama administration, and the FBI in particular, has been publicly lobbying for some form of guaranteed entry into encrypted data.

FBI officials argue they need a method of legitimately accessing information on devices and social media platforms. They say we can’t allow a “zone of privacy,” in which criminals can operate without fear of discovery.

Technologists have countered that allowing any means of guaranteed access renders encryption inherently flawed. If the government has a way in, hackers have a way in, they maintain.

In the past, the Senate has declined to adopt the encryption amendments when considering House-passed budget bills with similar add-ons.

“I think that the White House ought to heed this congressional action,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights advocate. “It’s movement against the FBI position that our technologies ought to be made more vulnerable.”