February 12, 2020
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Sen. Ron Wyden, who has been perhaps the most outspoken legislator on the topic of encryption, privacy, and government intervention in technology, said he will “use every power I have as senator” to prevent lawmakers from passing laws that weaken encryption.
Wyden (D-Ore.) spoke Tuesday at RightsCon, a conference on digital rights and privacy, and had some very clear thoughts on what the government’s role should and should not be when it comes to security and privacy. He spoke generally about the privacy and security debate in Congress and in public, but also specifically about efforts in Washington to weaken strong encryption through backdoors or key escrow systems. Wyden said that while the debate often is couched in terms of security versus privacy, that’s the wrong way to think about it.
“And let me be clear at the outset that the debate about data security is not about choosing security or choosing privacy. It is about choosing less security or choosing more security. People who think that the government should have more surveillance powers will often try to frame this debate as a choice between privacy and security,” Wyden said.
“They are wrong. Our job is to convince the public that when politicians or the news media say that, we are here to tell you it’s not the case. It’s less security versus more security.”
In his remarks, Wyden emphasized that he understands why law enforcement and intelligence agencies want to gather as much information as they can to help them do their jobs. But, he said, it’s the task of legislators and the rest of the government to ensure that those agencies don’t overreach.
“Plans to weaken strong encryption are a double loser.”
“Fortunately, in America the FBI Director doesn’t get to decide the rules for searching your phone, and the NSA Director doesn’t get to write the rules for reading your emails. Our founders made sure of that,” Wyden said.
“However, it is the responsibility of elected representatives to write new rules that protect individual security and liberty against any encroachment, and it is the responsibility of judges to question any increase in government power and to ensure that the protections of the 4th and 5th amendment are as real as in the day the Constitution was drafted.”
Wyden compared the current efforts to weaken encryption to previous conflicts over mass surveillance and email monitoring.
“Secret mass surveillance was proven to be a loser, warrantless email searches will be proven to be a loser and plans to weaken strong encryption are a double loser,” he said.
Without mentioning the FBI’s legal battle with Apple directly, Wyden said that encryption of smartphones and other devices may impede some government surveillance and criminal investigations, but it has enormous benefits for users.
“It is true that strong encryption will sometimes mean that information on an individual’s phone or computer will be beyond the government’s reach. And it is equally true that this information will therefore be out of the reach of hackers and criminals who may want to do that individual harm,” Wyden said.
“But it’s worth remembering that fifteen years ago almost no one in America owned a smartphone. A lot of the information that is now stored on a person’s phone used to be stored only in that person’s head, where it was beyond the reach of any warrant.”
Wyden said there are a number of things that can be done to address the privacy and security issues the country faces. He also outlined a plan that includes passing the Secure Data Act, a bill he drafted in 2014 that would prohibit the government from requiring intentional backdoors in security products.
“Without encryption, the most personal affairs of every individual, whom they spend time with, where they go, and what they think could be laid bare despite their best efforts to keep that information private,” Wyden said.