In a year-end report, a key congressional working group on encryption said that any governmental initiative to backdoor encryption systems is against the interests of the country and that there is no clear solution to the battle over encryption right now.
The Encryption Working Group, comprised of members of the House Judiciary Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been looking at the challenges that law enforcement and intelligence communities face with the wide deployment of strong encryption. The group said in its report that although encrypted communications present a serious obstacle for law enforcement agencies, officials in the national security community said encryption is a key part of protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure.
“Congress should not weaken this vital technology because doing so works against the national interest. However, it should not ignore and must address the legitimate concerns of the law enforcement and intelligence communities,” the report says.
Much of the encryption discussion in the United States this year has been focused on the Apple-FBI conflict and the subsequent arguments over whether law enforcement should have backdoor access to encrypted devices or communications. FBI officials, prosecutors, and others have argued that law enforcement needs the ability to decrypt devices such as iPhones or the stored communications of encrypted email or chat apps. But security experts have said that any backdoor or key escrow scheme in a crypto system would make it insecure for use by anyone.
But even if U.S. authorities succeeded in forcing American vendors to compromise the encryption in their products, that wouldn’t have any effect on encryption products made in other countries. Many of the more widely used encrypted email and chat services are developed by non-U.S. companies, putting them out of reach of any potential backdoor mandates.
“Representatives of various private companies told the EWG that a mandate compromising encryption in the U.S. technology sector would simply shift consumers to products offered by foreign companies. These forces might incentivize larger companies to leave the United States, and render small business and other innovators in the field obsolete,” the Encryption Working Group report says.
“If a U.S.-based company moved operations to a country with a more favorable legal regime, the law enforcement and intelligence communities might lose access to everything in that company’s holdings—encrypted or not.”
The group recommended that law enforcement and Congress work with the technology community to ensure that they are aware of all of the existing ways that law enforcement can request data from companies. Whatever level of cooperation comes out of this, the encryption debate isn’t going away anytime soon.
“Encryption is inexorably tied to our national interests. It is a safeguard for our personal secrets and economic prosperity. It helps to prevent crime and protect national security. The widespread use of encryption technologies also complicates the missions of the law enforcement and intelligence communities. As described in this report, those complications cannot be ignored. This is the reality of modern society,” the report says.