U.S. Lawmakers Intensify Push to Unlock Encrypted Communications (Bloomberg)

Lawmakers are intensifying their push to give U.S. law enforcement agencies access to encrypted communications after recent terror attacks but say they haven’t been able to agree on legislation to balance privacy and security.

"There is more that the government and industry must do," said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, in an e-mailed statement Monday. "There is no consensus on what a legislative solution would look like, let alone whether it would be effective."

The Obama administration and technology industry officials have been grappling publicly for more than a year over whether there is a way for investigators to get access to data that is encrypted, or secured using a scrambled code that can only be unlocked with a special key. Companies such as Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. incorporated stronger encryption in their products after revelations of U.S. spying were exposed by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.


Congressional Briefings


Top FBI officials and executives from technology companies will be summoned to Congress on Wednesday for briefings on the challenges that encrypted communications pose.


Intelligence agencies, law enforcement and technology companies have been discussing how to counter the use of social media and encrypted communications by terrorist groups, said Schiff.


Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a commission to study and develop specific proposals regarding encrypted communications.


"A legislative knee-jerk reaction could weaken Internet protections and privacy for everyday Americans, while doing nothing puts American lives at risk and makes it easier for terrorists and criminals to escape justice," McCaul said during a speech in Washington on Monday. "It is time for Congress to act because the White House has failed to bring all parties together -- transparently -- to find solutions."


Technology firms including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have a stake in not allowing their products to be used for terrorism, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday.


"They didn’t design their tools expressly so that terrorists could carry out acts of violence against innocent people," Earnest said.


Earnest said the administration hopes Silicon Valley would "play an active role" in denying terrorists "a safe haven" online. That includes conversations about both encryption and social media monitoring, Earnest said.


Law enforcement should be granted the "tools and access they need" to track terrorists, he added.


‘Backdoor’ Access


The administration isn’t expected to reverse course and ask for legislation mandating corporations provide so-called "backdoor" access to encrypted communications.


Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and other national security officials have been publicly warning for years that investigators are limited when suspects use technology to conceal their operations, such as using private online forums, apps that encrypt e-mails and hidden websites. It’s a problem that law enforcement officials refer to as "going dark."


The House Judiciary Committee will receive a classified briefing Wednesday from the FBI, which will be followed by a private meeting with officials from technology companies, according to a committee aide.


The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from Comey during a public hearing Wednesday.


"The terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have certainly raised the level of interest in the potential use of encryption technology by terrorists at home and abroad, and the balance between privacy and national security," Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the committee, said in an e-mail Monday.


The attack last week in California killed 14 people, and 130 died in Paris last month.


Comey previously told the panel the administration was holding discussions with technology companies.


"I look forward to hearing an update from Director Comey and seeing if these discussions have yielded any tangible results," Grassley said. "Considering the events of the past several weeks, there’s no question it will be a major topic of discussion for the committee members."


Schiff and Representative Devin Nunes of California, who is the top Republican on the House intelligence panel, asked the National Academy of Sciences in September to study if it’s possible to develop a secure system that provides the government access to encrypted data. The academy is doing the study, Schiff said.

Source: Bloomberg