Could encryption play a role in America’s next big leadership battle?
The 2016 presidential election is still more than a year away, but in a few days, Republicans in the House of Representatives will elect the next speaker of the House, the highest-ranking member of the lower chamber. And the two leading candidates in the race to replace Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is retiring later this month, disagree about the merits of strong encryption.
Over the last two years, FBI Director James Comey has pushed lawmakers around the world to consider mandating backdoors in commercial encryption to give authorities a foolproof way of accessing al electronic communications. Academics, privacy activists, and some lawmakers have resisted that approach, saying that backdoors weaken security and make commercial technology easier prey for hackers.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a conservative Republican with Tea Party roots, announced on Sunday that he would challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the current majority leader, for the Speakership. Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has fervently opposed encryption backdoors as he has sought to make law-enforcement and intelligence agencies more accountable to the American people.
“It’s impossible to build just a backdoor for just the good guys,” Chaffetz said in an April hearing on encryption.
Senior law-enforcement officials argue in response that widespread encryption is causing criminals to “go dark” as they communicate beyond the reach of government surveillance. At the encryption hearing, Chaffetz dismissed that argument.
“We already live in what some experts refer to as the ‘Golden Age of Surveillance’ for law enforcement,” he said, before continuing:
“Federal, state, and local law enforcement have never had … more tools at their disposal to detect, prevent, and prosecute crime. It seems that every day there is a new, often startling, story about the United States’ government’s ability to track its own citizens. I recognize technology can be a double-edged sword and many pose challenges for law enforcement, but we’re certainly not going to go dark, and in many ways we’ve never been brighter.”
McCarthy, Boehner’s top deputy in the House and his presumptive successor, sits on the other side of the issue.
In June 2015, McCarthy voted against a bipartisan amendment that cut off funding for National Security Agency efforts to build backdoors in encryption standards. The NSA has watered down previous government efforts to develop strong encryption protocols by secretly adding backdoors, jeopardizing the trust between the security community and neutral government standards bodies.
The no-backdoors amendment passed the House, but it failed in the Senate.
“I don’t fundamentally trust my federal government,” Chaffetz said when asked about NSA spying in 2013.
Illustration by Max Fleishman