Senate Intel encryption bill nears release

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Senate Intelligence Committee leaders could soon release a draft of a long-awaited bill that would give law enforcement access to encrypted data.

The language may be circulated in the next few days, committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told The Hill on Thursday.

{mosads}The bill is undergoing final technical edits in response to Department of Justice (DOJ) comments that were received late Wednesday, Burr added.

“It’s still our intent to get that out and to produce it as a draft so that the media can see it just like Silicon Valley can see it,” he said.

The long-awaited bill — in the works since last fall’s terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. — is expected to force companies to comply with court orders seeking locked communications.

The measure is intended to prevent terrorists and criminals from using encryption to hide their communications from law enforcement.

Burr has been working on the bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat.

Feinstein said she also received a “red-line” edit of the bill from the Obama administration on Thursday morning. She and her staff planned to digest the remarks starting Thursday afternoon.

“So, it’s still not quite ready,” she said. “This is important, to get all points of view.”

The two authors have not touched base since the administration sent back its thoughts on the bill, which Burr described as “not substantive, mostly technical.”

The White House last fall decided to back away from supporting similar legislative options, leading many to believe the administration will not champion the Burr-Feinstein effort.

Burr said last week he was aiming to get the encryption bill out before the Senate’s recess during the final two weeks of March.

But running out of time on Thursday, Burr insisted there was still a chance a draft of the measure would be released in the coming days. It depends, he explained, on how quickly the DOJ suggestions can be integrated.

“The process time is a little bit longer for some [suggestions] than for others, and I don’t know how long that’s going to be,” he said.

Feinstein declined to give a timeline, but stressed, “I won’t put out a draft under my name [if] I haven’t looked at all of this stuff.

The Burr-Feinstein bill is part of a larger Capitol Hill debate over how lawmakers should handle the rapid spread of encryption.

The law enforcement community has long warned that encryption is making it more difficult to uncover criminal and terrorist plots. Officials have pushed tech firms to provide investigators with guaranteed access to secure data.

But the tech community — backed by privacy advocates — has resisted, arguing that such access would cripple global digital security and infringe on civil liberties.

These disagreements gained wider attention when Apple rebuffed a court order asking the tech giant to help unlock an iPhone used Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife killed 14 people last year in San Bernardino.

The court dispute has led to a growing consensus in Washington that Congress must weigh in.

But it may be hard for Burr and Feinstein to gather the needed support to push through their offering.

Lawmakers including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have vocally backed their colleagues’ work. But others have warned that regulating encryption standards could not only weaken security but also damage America’s economic competitiveness.

A third group has concluded the issue is too complicated to go with either approach and is backing a compromise bill to establish a national commission that would study the subject.

That measure, from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), was introduced last week with a number of bipartisan co-sponsors, including seven in the upper chamber and 15 in the lower chamber.

Tags Dianne Feinstein John McCain Mark Warner Richard Burr Tom Cotton

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