Pelosi: Encryption debate will help define 'Brand America'

Pelosi: Encryption debate will help define 'Brand America'
© Greg Nash

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it’s time to have “a discussion” about the proliferation of encryption that locks out even law enforcement.

But the California Democrat warned against any hasty government action that could damage the robust American tech sector.

“It’s a very legitimate debate that we should have,” she said during her weekly press conference on Thursday.


Indeed, the encryption debate has been raging in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris that killed over 120 people, wounding hundreds more. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken credit for the assault.

Law enforcement officials have said it is likely that those behind the deadly plot used encrypted platforms to communicate in the planning stages, although no specific evidence has been shown to support their suspicions.

Encryption is “a prominent feature of the tradecraft of a group like [ISIS],” FBI Director James Comey told reporters in a late Thursday briefing, according to Politico.

“Increasingly, the shadow that is ‘going dark’ is falling across more and more of our work,” he added.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this week have expressed similar concerns about the “going dark” problem, in which investigators are barred from legally obtaining data on suspects due to encryption that even companies can’t break.

Several have even called for legislation that would force companies to build in mechanisms that would allow them to decrypt data at the government’s request. The tech community has long insisted that any such mechanism would be ruinous for digital privacy and online security.

Pelosi cautioned fellow lawmakers against a knee-jerk reaction in the wake of a tragedy. She pointed out that any guaranteed government access to a company’s encryption will make American technology undesirable to consumers, who have increasingly demanded encrypted services in the wake of the government leaker Edward Snowden’s disclosure of secret U.S. surveillance programs.

“We cannot have a situation where we make decision where nobody will want our technology, because we make decisions that are more emotional than factual,” she said.

As a global leader on technology, the U.S. has to be cautious about the precedent it sets, Pelosi insisted. The California lawmaker has long represented tech-heavy San Francisco.

“On all of these issues that relate to our technology, and that we are the leader in the world, it’s about security, it’s about privacy and civil liberties, and it’s also about ‘Brand America,’ ” she said.

The White House recently backed away from a potential legislative push, choosing to instead work with companies directly on finding a solution.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night that the White House has asked Silicon Valley executives to come to Washington, D.C., for a renewed discussion of the topic.

Congressional staffers have done the same, according to the Journal.

“It is a very big issue,” Pelosi conceded.