Cybersecurity

Top GOP senator backs encryption commission bill

A top Senate leader is throwing his support behind a compromise bill on encryption, possibly helping the measure gain momentum in the upper chamber.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Wednesday told The Hill that he planned to back legislation to create a national commission to study how law enforcement can access secure data without endangering Americans’ privacy.

{mosads}“I’m going to be supportive of the commission bill,” Johnson said.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced the bill on Monday.

Johnson gives McCaul and Warner a critical ally in the Senate, given the Homeland Security Committee’s jurisdiction over domestic safety issues.

The duo’s national commission plan is meant as an alternative to legislation that would force companies to help unlock secure devices under court order. Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — the Intelligence Committee leaders — have been drafting such a bill for several months.

McCaul and Warner fear the Burr-Feinstein approach would be ineffective, potentially weakening security and damaging global competitiveness for American tech firms.

Instead, the pair want a national commission to study how authorities can maintain security with the proliferation of modern technology.The group would bring together privacy advocates, technologists and law enforcement officials to create technological and legislative proposals within a year.

Encryption has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill since Apple defied an FBI-requested court order seeking help unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The standoff is the most high-profile incident of a long-feared scenario.

Law enforcement officials have been warning that encryption is increasingly helping terrorists and criminals “go dark” and hide from investigators. They want tech companies to provide investigators with some type of guaranteed access to locked data.

But the tech community has resisted, arguing that unbreakable security is integral to digital security and online privacy.

With the two sides at loggerheads, lawmakers on both sides of the argument increasingly believe Capitol Hill must settle the debate with legislation.

But they haven’t been able to decide what that legislation should look like.

The Burr-Feinstein proposal hasn’t been released yet, but the idea hasn’t gained much traction in the House or Senate.

In January, Johnson indicated he had concerns about the Burr-Feinstein efforts, arguing that the bill might “do more harm than good.”

“Is it really going to solve any problems if we force our companies to do something here in the U.S.?” he asked. “It’s just going to move offshore. Determined actors, terrorists, are still going to be able to find a service provider that will be able to encrypt accounts.”

The duo also rolled out their bill with a broad bipartisan group of co-sponsors that includes Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), as well as 15 lawmakers in the House. 

Tags Angus King Cory Gardner Dean Heller Dianne Feinstein Mark Warner Michael Bennet Richard Burr Ron Johnson Shelley Moore Capito Susan Collins
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