US: lawmakers should try to understand encryption before fixing it

A new US government report has called on lawmakers to learn more about encryption before attempting to regulate it.

Republican Michael McCaul, who led the House Homeland Security Committee report, has proposed the government establish a team of experts to move political debate beyond backdoors for law enforcement and consider other aspects, such as technology, privacy, and innovation.

The experts, from a range of disciplines, would discuss encryption and regulation under a new Digital Security Commission that would develop police and legislative recommendations for Congress.

“We believe the best way to make informed, sustainable decisions is to bring together experts who best understand the complexities of this issue, and can advise Congress on the best path forward,” the committee wrote.

The team would consist of experts in cryptology, commerce and economics, and members from law enforcement, the intelligence community, consumer and enterprise tech firms, and privacy and civil liberty groups.

After completing 100 meetings with experts from these fields it concluded that there was “no silver bullet” to the challenge protections that are increasingly built in to consumer technology, such as smartphones.

The committee hopes the new Digital Security Commission can help solve disputes over privacy and security at the heart of Apple’s fight with the FBI over access to an iPhone used by one off the San Bernardino shooters. Apple protested loudly against an order that would help law enforcement unlock one iPhone, but could also be used to undermine all iPhones.

The report notes that proposals in response to terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, such as mandating a backdoors in encryption products, have been misguided and reflected an over-simplified understanding of the issues at stake.

“Initially, lawmakers and some among law enforcement personnel believed the solution was simple: statutorily authorize law enforcement access to obtain encrypted data with a court order,” the report says.

“Unfortunately, this proposal was riddled with unintended consequences, particularly if redesigning encryption tools to incorporate vulnerabilities—creating what some refer to as “backdoors”—actually weakened data security. Indeed those vulnerabilities would naturally be exploited by the bad guys—and not just benefit the good guys.”

Among seven findings by the committee was that law makers must develop a “far deeper understanding of this complex issue before they attempt to a legislative fix.”

As the report notes, encryption is vital for protecting data held on smartphones, as well as health, e-commerce and financial information online, but is also exploited by bad actors, including terrorists, child predators, and drug traffickers.

“Thus, what we are really dealing with is not so much a question of “privacy versus security,” but a question of “security versus security,” the report states.

This “security versus security” phenomenon is resulting in inconsistent laws by governments around the world that end up harming law-abiding citizens while helping criminals and terrorists, it argued.

Pointing to a recent Harvard University study, it notes that if US firms are restricted from implementing strong encryption, bad actors could still obtain alternative tools from non-US makers, while US and non-US consumers might turn to technology from firms beyond the reach of US legislation.