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Democratic Senate Shuffle Could Aid Encryption Advocates on Intel Committee

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. // Susan Walsh/AP

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., will be the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next Congress, leadership announced Wednesday.

That move will put an advocate for a measured approach to encryption in a key position if the issue heats up under the Trump administration. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump advocated for government backdoors into encrypted communication and called for a boycott against Apple over the Silicon Valley company’s refusal to help the FBI crack into an encrypted iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.

The move is part of a larger Democratic shuffle that could have consequences for cybersecurity priorities in Congress. Warner’s predecessor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will become ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could consider FBI hacking powers, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will take the top minority slot on Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs, which will face a slew of cyber challenges.

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Warner has advocated a middle-of-the-road approach to the debate over cop-proof encryption systems, which law enforcement officials warn could allow terrorists and criminal communications to “go dark,” but which technologists say are vital for security.

He introduced legislation in February to create a commission that would examine ways to balance the privacy and security benefits of strong encryption with law enforcement concerns about criminals and terrorists hiding their communications using encryption tools.

Feinstein and intelligence chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., by contrast, floated draft legislation in April that would compel tech companies to help law enforcement access customer communications when presented with a warrant—essentially, the Apple case. That bill, which was never formally introduced, stopped short of mandating a government backdoor into encrypted communications.

Warner continues to support a long-term encryption solution developed by experts, a spokesperson said Wednesday.

Warner warned Trump “doesn’t have a lot of knowledge around the workings of government or the complexities of cyber” during a conference hosted by the government cybersecurity vendor Splunk Tuesday, but did not address the president-elect’s position on encryption.

He urged government employees and security contractors in the audience to “buck up” and continue offering ideas and innovations to make government more secure.

A House companion to Warner’s bill was sponsored by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, an adviser to Trump on national security issues. Neither bill has passed out of committee. 

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