Tech, cyber voices emerge in wide-open Speaker race

Tech, cyber voices emerge in wide-open Speaker race

The wide-open Speaker race has thrust several of the House's more prominent tech and cybersecurity voices into the spotlight.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) decision to abruptly pull himself from contention for the Speakership just minutes before a vote Thursday has upended the process and opened the door to a number of dark-horse candidates.


Reps. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah), Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Candice Miller (R-Mich.) have all been floated as possibilities to succeed outgoing House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE (R-Ohio), who retires at the end of this month.

In recent years, each has made a mark speaking out on issues like the government’s lagging cyber defenses, surveillance reform and encryption standards.

While these topics will likely be a non-factor in the actual race for the House’s top spot, the digital rights community is intrigued by the concept of having a tech-savvy Speaker for perhaps the first time in congressional history.

“That’s exactly what the Republican party needs,” said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “Issues like privacy are areas where you could actually get legislation passed that Republicans have led on — that they can get Democrats on board with — without having to compromise.”

All four lawmakers currently hold or have held prominent cyber positions in the House, helping to craft the most recent cybersecurity, surveillance and government tech policies.

Chaffetz is the current chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Issa his predecessor. Westmoreland oversees a key House subcommittee on cybersecurity and the National Security Agency, and Miller is the vice chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The digital rights community in particular see Chaffetz and Issa as lawmakers who would proactively take up surveillance reform and push for laws that make it harder for law enforcement to access digital communications.

While many of these issues have long been broadly popular in the GOP caucus, and even among many Democrats, leadership has not necessarily prioritized the topics.

“On some privacy issues there has been a disconnect between leadership and the rank-and-file,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“So it’s interesting to see that some of the people running … have a history of being very engaged and being supportive of policies that are privacy-respecting,” she added.

Chaffetz and Issa have both championed some of the tech and privacy coalition’s pet issues.

Both support the Email Privacy Act, which would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing private email accounts.

The bill has amassed over 300 co-sponsors, but hasn’t come close to getting a floor vote.

Chaffetz is also a co-sponsor of the GPS Act, which would force investigators to get a warrant when seeking electronic location data.

Issa and Chaffetz have stood out on surveillance reform as well, voting in favor of the USA Freedom Act, the first time in years Congress had restricted the government’s data collecting authorities. The bill ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of U.S. phone records and other data.

But unlike Republican leadership, both have shown a desire to go past these initial reforms. Others key surveillance authorities derived from Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expire in 2017.

The provisions are intended to let the government pick up foreign communications. But the emails and chats of Americans are occasionally “incidentally” collected without a warrant under several NSA surveillance programs.

“They could actually step in and take up reform to Section 702,” Guliani said.

Although Westmoreland and Miller both voted in favor of the USA Freedom Act, digital privacy advocates didn't necessary identify them as leaders on the topics.

Encryption is another contentious topic that has, much like surveillance reform, split Republican leadership and the GOP rank-and-file.

Law enforcement officials have appealed to Congress for its help in finding a way to guarantee access to encrypted data. Investigators have said criminals and terrorists are able to operate anonymously with encrypted devices, knowing that officials can’t access their messages, even when armed with a warrant.

While many senior Republicans have supported this call, many libertarian-minded members side with privacy advocates and technologists, who argue any guaranteed access weakens digital privacy and exposes people’s information to hackers.

Guliani lauded Chaffetz for his attention to the issue in committee hearings. Across several Oversight Committee hearings, Chaffetz pressed administration officials to publicly disavow any guaranteed access to encrypted data. He has also urged federal agencies to more swiftly adopt encryption.

Westmoreland and Miller have both stood out as prominent voices in other areas of cybersecurity policy.

Both vocally backed two House-passed bills that would expand the exchange of cyber threat data between the public and private sector.

Westmoreland has also pressed the Obama administration to better define its policy around “hack backs,” or hitting back in cyberspace in order to thwart aggressive hacks.

“When does playing [cyber] defense become offense?" Westmoreland asked top intelligence leaders in a September hearing.

Miller, as chair of the House Administration Committee, has also worked to bolster the House’s own cybersecurity.

Of course, this could all be a moot point if Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) changes his mind and enters the Speaker race. Despite Ryan’s repeated insistences he is not interested in the top job, members have been cajoling him to run.

Several possible candidates, including Chaffetz, have said they would step aside if Ryan chooses to run.