Encryption bill aims to settle the likes of Apple vs. FBI

Members of Congress say they'll introduce a bill next week that would create a commission to help federal agents catch terrorists who are using encrypted devices, without sacrificing privacy or security.

As Apple battles with the Justice Department over creating a backdoor into a terrorist's iPhone, two lawmakers say they want to create a commission that hopefully gets to the crux of such matters.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said Wednesday they'll introduce a bill in Congress next week seeking to form a commission tasked with addressing issues on digital security that have put authorities and private companies at odds.

Speaking at a forum at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC., the politicians said they think the commission will get bipartisan support because it would not only offer recommendations on how to address law enforcement request for access to encrypted data, but also on how to keep data safe for all US citizens.

"We need to find a solution to a Paris-style attack where terrorists are using end-to-end encryption that doesn't create a backdoor criminals and other adversaries can use to compromise data security," said, McCaul, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the tech giant would be willing to participate in a commission formed by the US Congress to discuss the implications of national security and privacy.

Josh Miller/CNET

The proposed commission comes as the closely-watched standoff between Apple and the feds intensifies. At issue is whether courts and law enforcement agencies can compel Apple to break the iPhone's security features. Apple CEO Tim Cook says if the government gets its way, the company's phones will be inherently less secure. Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey has said this is an issue of national security and Apple is more concerned with protecting its reputation than its customers.

A federal court in Southern California has given Apple until Friday to say whether it will comply or refuse Judge Sheri Pym's order to help the FBI access the iPhone used by Syed Farook, the gunman in the San Bernardino, California, shooting that killed 14 people and injured 22 others in December.

The encryption debate is complex and divisive among US citizens, according to multiple surveys. A Pew study found about 51 percent of those surveyed believed Apple should comply with the court order, while 38 percent said the tech giant shouldn't unlock the iPhone. However, a Reuters poll had opposite results. About 46 percent actually agreed with Apple's stance and 35 percent disagreed. In a CNET poll with more than 19,000 responses, a large majority have sided with Apple's refusal to assist.

McCaul and Warner, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, say while Apple's fight with the government is timely, the congressmen have been working on the idea of a commission since late last year. Warner said the purpose of the commission is far broader than Apple and the government. Encryption is here to stay and "part of the fabric of American security," he said, but making sure "we have legal ways to go after criminals and terrorists in an appropriate legal fashion is absolutely necessary."

Bringing relevant stakeholders, including experts in technology, law enforcement, legal, civil liberties and intelligence, together in the same room is critical, Warner added. He fears those entities are adversaries "talking past each other," instead of finding some common ground.

"The (digital security issue) will ultimately have to be decided by Congress," he said. McCaul added that encryption is "the biggest challenge for federal law enforcement in my lifetime."

Apple would no doubt be a willing participant in such a commission. CEO Tim Cook on Monday said in an email to employees that he wants Congress to form a commission to "discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms."

The lawmakers believe the bill will be fast-tracked through Congress. The commission, which would be modeled after a bipartisan commission that investigated what happened following the September 11 terrorist attacks, will have a year to come up with solutions.

They believe that the commission's findings will set the standard for other countries to follow. If not, it could turn into the "balkanization of the Internet," Warner said.

"We need to have this conversation," he said.

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