House Homeland Security chairman: ‘No simple answers’ in encryption debate

Rep. Mike McCaul, who leads the House Committee on Homeland Security, called for the creation of a blue ribbon committee on security and technology challenges.

The U.S. needs to strike a balance between protecting consumer privacy and bolstering the country’s efforts to police terrorists in cyberspace, according to the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Speaking Monday at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said “there are no simple answers” in the debate about law enforcement access to encrypted communications. But he called for the creation of a national commission on security and technology challenges. He said he would propose legislation to create the blue ribbon panel “soon.” The panel “would bring together the technology sector, privacy and civil liberties groups, academics, and the law enforcement community to find common ground,” he said.

“I will not tell you it’s an easy solution,” McCaul added during a question-and-answer session following his speech on the state of homeland security. “But I’ve had very in-depth discussions that I do believe there are alternatives, there are some solutions to this problem.”

Technologists have criticized calls for law-enforcement accessible back doors into encrypted communication products, saying terrorists would simply use non-U.S. products and that the back doors would weaken the security of encrypted communications — vital to e-commerce and citizen privacy.


McCaul appeared to recognize those competing priorities when he denied the discussion was about “privacy vs. security.”

“It’s ‘security vs. security,'” he said. “A legislative knee-jerk reaction could weaken internet protections and privacy for everyday Americans, while doing nothing puts American lives at risk” from undetected terror attacks.

McCaul’s speech comes a day after the president spoke about fighting terrorism in a nationally televised prime time address. In his remarks, President Barack Obama sought to reopen the encryption debate when he called on “high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

At NDU, McCaul condemned the president’s national security strategy, saying a “leadership void has put the United States homeland in the highest threat environment since 9/11.”

At the same time, McCaul lauded the White House’s efforts to help pass legislation that would encourage companies to share information on cyberthreats by giving them legal immunity. This year, House passed two versions of an information-sharing bill and the Senate passed its own version in October. Lawmakers from both chambers currently are negotiating a final bill to send to the president.


Passing the legislation is critical because the threat is severe, he said.

“We are tied more to the Internet than any other nation, and therefore we are most vulnerable to a cyberattack,” he said

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