It’s not a secret that most of the people we have sent to Washington to make laws and go to lunch with lobbyists aren’t, shall we say, technically savvy. Although some of them are capable of running their own mail servers, many more struggle to enable Siri or come up with a decent metaphor for the Internet.
That’s why it’s so refreshing and encouraging to see legislators such as Rep. Ted Lieu and Sen. Ron Wyden taking measured, considered positions on highly technical and complex issues such as encryption and law enforcement hacking. While many lawmakers have been outspoken on theses issues, few, if any, have demonstrated the technical knowledge and understanding of the nuances those two congressmen have. Both have spent a lot of time studying and considering these issues, and it’s not by accident that they have emerged as the leading voices in the House and the Senate on the encryption debate.
Lieu (D-Calif.) is the rare member of Congress with a computer science background, and he also happens to be a lawyer. A Stanford graduate, Lieu knows the Silicon Valley mindset and understands the technical intricacies of the encryption issue. During the Apple-FBI fight earlier this year, Lieu was one of the few legislators to critique the idea of a law enforcement agency forcing a private corporation to compromise its own security. In a letter to FBI Director James Comey, Lieu said the courts were no place for this kind of action.
“Using the court process and an antiquated law to coerce a private sector technology company is especially inappropriate in this case because Congress has been actively debating the very issue of the appropriateness of mandating ‘back doors’ and other ways to weaken encryption,” Lieu said in the letter.
“I think the debate is between less security and more security.”
In the wake of that controversy, Lieu also introduced a bill that would prohibit states from forcing technology vendors to “design or alter the security functions in its product or service to allow the surveillance of any user of such product or service, or to allow the physical search of such product, by any agency or instrumentality of a State, a political subdivision of a State, or the United States.”
Lieu gets it, and so does Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence who has been an outspoken critic of many proposals to hamstring encryption and security systems over the years. Wyden, a plain-spoken man who, years before the Snowden leaks warned of illegal mass surveillance, has been stressing the short-sightedness of compromising encryption systems. This week, as debates over encryption and a proposed change to a rule on government hacking powers heat up, Wyden said that much of what is being said about strong encryption being a choice between privacy and security is wrong.
“That is a false dichotomy. I think the debate is between less security and more security,” Wyden said. “I’m telling you that by weakening strong encryption Americans will be less safe.”
That’s a simple statement, but it perfectly encapsulates the issue. Strong encryption is designed to keep data, and by extension, people, secure. Backdoors or key escrow or any other form of compromise eats away at the foundation of that security, a fact that Wyden and Lieu both understand. They’ve done an admirable job articulating that point, and if their colleagues in the House and the Senate absorb some of their knowledge, we’ll all be better off for it.