Modern field guide to security and privacy

Senator Wyden: Congress may block government access to encrypted consumer devices

It is going to be hard for members of Congress to defend the federal government’s position on this issue, particularly after the NSA 'overreach' on surveillance, said the Senate Intelligence Committee member.

For months, senior intelligence and law enforcement officials have been calling for built-in access to consumer devices in the name of national security.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, a key senator who oversees intelligence programs from his perch on the Intelligence Committee, says he and other members of Congress will fight hard against government "back doors" into encryption.

In fact, he calls the government's push for access to encrypted devices "a very, very bad idea” for both consumers’ security and American companies’ business.

After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the sweeping surveillance programs that collected the communications records of tens of millions of Americans, companies such as Apple and Google came out with stronger encryption measures. In response, senior officials including FBI Director James Comey and NSA chief Adm. Mike Rogers have demanded a secure channel to access encrypted data – which they say is necessary for law enforcement and intelligence to track criminals and terrorists.

“What takes my breath away,” Senator Wyden said at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Friday, “is that these are some of the most cutting-edge companies in our country. They pay workers good wages. They’re doing important research. Their brand is on fire around the world. And the federal government is going to say, on the front pages of the paper, it’s going to require them to build weaknesses into their products?”

What’s more, he adds, back door access is dangerous. “It’s not just the good guys who can have the keys to get in there. There are a lot of bad guys.”

Wyden said he was especially disturbed by the calls for back doors now, because the NSA’s “overreach” with its mass surveillance programs “created the problem in the first place.”

After the disclosures, companies had to find some way to satisfy consumers’ demands for privacy, he said, since “American companies find their brand getting hurt around the world and the US, and upwards of $30 billion lost in terms of economic opportunity and consumer confidence.”

As this issue picks up steam, Wyden says more members of Congress will join his camp. “It is going to be very hard for a member of Congress, in any quarter of America, to stand up and defend the federal government particularly after the overreach," he said.

So far, Wyden’s efforts to block the government have been thwarted. He offered an amendment in a recent closed-door markup of a cybersecurity bill in the Intelligence Committee that would prevent the government from requiring access to encrypted devices. It was voted down 12 to 3.

“I am going to fight for this as hard as anything I can imagine,” he pledged.

But Wyden is encouraged because a majority of the House has already voted for a similar proposal. An amendment last summer to the defense appropriations bill to prohibit the NSA from mandating or requesting private companies add back doors to encryption standards passed 293 to 123.

This suggests it might not be as steep of a climb as the intel committee vote would suggest, and members are contacting his staff to learn more about the issue, he says. A back door ban, he said, “is not so unpopular.”


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