Speaker of the House Paul Ryan unveiled a 23-page national security plan Thursday, calling for increased information-sharing between government agencies and the development of offensive weaponry to deter the nation’s “cyber” adversaries. But even as the proposal praised encryption tools as essential to the security of the web, it called for a more effective “balance” between data privacy and national security — a point of contention within the party and Washington at large.
“Tools like encryption are the bedrock of Internet security — without them, the web would be a far more dangerous place,” the proposal argues. Yet, in the same document, Republicans draw a line between that bedrock of security and threats to our safety. They cite the “going dark” phenomenon, “in which terrorists hide their messages on secure, online platforms—a method increasingly used by criminals.” The Justice Department, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement have argued that encrypted communications hinder the ability of investigators to pursue leads, obtain evidence, and thwart terrorist plots. “In confronting this challenge, however, we must not undermine American citizens’ privacy protections,” the proposal states.
In February, as Apple challenged the FBI’s demands to bypass security features on a terrorist’s iPhone, Donald Trump called for a boycott of the company. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton said at the time that “Apple chose to protect a dead ISIS terrorist’s privacy over the security of the American people.” And Richard Burr, the chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee has drafted legislation that would force American tech companies to provide law enforcement access to the encrypted information of their customers.
That encryption can stand as the bedrock of digital security, vital to American businesses, while also serving as a tool for bad guys to escape the law highlights the policy dilemma Republican lawmakers face.
While new encryption legislation is unlikely to pass before the presidential election, two parallel Congressional efforts are underway to study the issue further. An encryption working group and a separate digital security commission will take into consideration the arguments raised by law enforcement as well as cryptologists, privacy advocates and the giants of Silicon Valley, whose consensus view is to reject any government mandate on encryption. The two efforts are being led by House Republicans, with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.