Lawmakers say digital-security commission is about more than just Apple vs. FBI

Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Michael McCaul are trying to start a commission to examine privacy and security. But it goes beyond a "one-phone case."

Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Michael McCaul (both center) said their commission would touch on more facets of digital security than just encryption.

Richard Nieva/CNET

While Apple and the FBI battle over iPhone data, two lawmakers hope a commission they're proposing can go well beyond that one high-profile saga.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, are trying to start a 16-member commission to examine digital security. It would bring together experts to make recommendations to Congress about how to balance security and privacy issues between authorities and private companies.

Apple has refused to comply with government requests for data from an iPhone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino, California, shootings in December. But though that standoff has put these issues in the spotlight, the lawmakers said they're looking at the bigger picture.

"We think this goes well beyond a one-phone case," McCaul said during a gathering with reporters Saturday at the South by Southwest tech, music and film festival in Austin, Texas.

"This is a digital-security commission and not an encryption commission," said Warner, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said the situation will only get more complicated as things increasingly become connected to the Internet. Soon, we won't just be talking about data from smartphones, but also cars, blenders and washing machines.

"We are going to live in that world where you talk to your refrigerator," Warner said.

The congressman said the commission would make its preliminary recommendations to Congress six months after its first meeting. Congress wouldn't be forced to follow the recommendations, but Warner said it would be "hard-pressed" not to. The lawmakers did not have a timeline for when the commission would come together, but McCaul, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, hoped it would be in "short order."

But even if the commission could get all the relevant parties to sit down together, technology moves so quickly that it would be difficult for a cadre like this to stay atop the issues. Instead, Warner said the intended result would be to come up with "a process of continuing collaboration."

He said the key is to "not turn the keys over to the extremes on either side."

That said, the goal involves developing solutions that would give law enforcement the best shot at stopping acts of terror like the Paris attacks in November, while not creating a back door into tech gadgets that would let hackers and others gain access to the devices.

"If we can't see what they're saying, we can't stop it," McCaul said of data coming from terrorists and criminals. "If Congress does nothing, as some recommend, shame on us."

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