Senate Intel leaders worry encryption commission too slow

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders want to move swiftly on encryption legislation and bypass a proposed national commission to study the topic first.

“I don’t think a commission is necessarily the right thing when you know what the problem is. And we know what the problem is,” Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAnti-Trump Republicans on the line in 2022 too The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks GOP senators say Biden COVID-19 strategy has 'exacerbated vaccine hesitancy' MORE (R-N.C.) said.


Burr is working on a bill with his committee’s ranking member, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D-Calif.), that would guarantee law enforcement access to encrypted data.

But Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (D-Va.) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) are pushing their own competing proposal that would establish a national commission to investigate the issue before crafting legislation.

“What we’re trying to do is get that collaboration started,” Warner told reporters on Tuesday. “Let’s get the experts in the room.”

The recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have touched off a heated debate on Capitol Hill about encryption.

Law enforcement officials are warning that criminals and terrorists are increasingly relying on encryption to hide their communications from authorities. In Paris, investigators said the attackers used encrypted apps to help plan the assault that killed 130 people.

In response, Burr and Feinstein have led the charge on legislation that would force companies to maintain ways to decrypt their data when compelled by court order.

But the tech community and privacy advocates have condemned these efforts. They say such a move would weaken digital privacy and security because encryption entry point introduces vulnerabilities that can be exploited by criminals as well as government officials.

In an effort to break the logjam, McCaul and Warner's measure would bring together representatives from all sides involved: tech industry leaders, privacy advocates, academics, law enforcement officials and members of the intelligence community.

The panel would offer suggestions to Congress about how police can access encrypted data without endangering Americans’ privacy.

Feinstein did not dismiss the idea, telling The Hill, “It’s not a bad idea, actually.”

But she expressed concern about the time a commission might take to produce recommendations.

Congress has to move fast, Feinstein said, given the recent terrorist attack in her home state.

The California lawmaker said she “suspect[s]” the shooters behind the deadly plot encrypted some of their communications leading up to the assault, which left 14 people dead.

“Here’s the problem,” Feinstein said. “If the Internet goes totally dark, and there are apps that people can use to communicate to plot, to plan, to threaten, to do all of that, you’ve got a real problem.”

Feinstein and Burr believe their legislation would ensure the government can see the encrypted communications of suspicious individuals.

“The terrorists. They’re not going to go away,” Feinstein said. “We have to put a very concerted effort forward.”

Burr told The Hill the two are “progressing on the bill nicely.”

“We don’t expect to hurry this,” he added. “We want to get it right.”

“Hopefully you’ll see [a bill] before too long,” Feinstein said.