Privacy in the Tech Age
Can Lawmakers Crack the Encryption Puzzle?

As the high-profile battle between Apple and the FBI over access to a terrorist’s iPhone makes its way through the courts, Congress is starting to look for a middle ground. Mother Jones reports:

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee will introduce a bill on Monday afternoon aiming to help solve the long-running fight between the government and the tech and privacy communities over encryption, which has made headlines recently thanks to the FBI’s attempt to force Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The bill, which will be introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and is backed strongly by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), would create a commission of 16 experts with a range of backgrounds—from cryptographers and intelligence officials to privacy advocates and tech executives […]

McCaul and the commission’s backers hope the panel may find a new, previously undiscovered way to reconcile the legal and technical demands of the two sides, but there appears to be little idea of what that could be.

The proposed expert commission might yield helpful insights, but it seems unlikely that it can yield a silver bullet solution to the encryption dilemma, as some of its backers are hoping. The tradeoff between security and privacy is at some level inescapable, and no amount of technocratic tinkering can make it go away. Apple has staked out a hard line—no backdoor into its products, under any circumstances—while the government is demanding one, at least in extraordinary cases like this one. Creative policy innovations probably won’t be able to circumvent what is ultimately be a political fight, with civil libertarians and technology companies pitted against security hawks. One side or the other will ultimately walk away with a win.

That said, it’s good to see lawmakers at least starting to assert themselves on this vitally important question, rather than surrendering it to the whims of the executive and judicial branches, which has often been Congress’s inclination since the September 11 attacks (as with the NSA surveillance program). New technologies are forcing a redefinition of privacy in America, and it is appropriate for the first branch of government to be at the center of this unfolding debate.

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