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Lawmaker Says Justice Department is Wrong About Encryption

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Days after a Justice Department leader called for “responsible encryption” that allows law enforcement to access suspects’ encrypted data, one of Congress’ cybersecurity leaders slammed the idea.

“It’s technically impossible to have strong encryption with any kind of backdoor,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, told the audience at The Atlantic’s Cyber Frontier event Thursday. Encryption, he said, is good for national security, the economy and should be strengthened, but he expects conversations about it to continue.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Tuesday dusted off the Justice Department’s opinion that tech and communications companies should allow law enforcement ways to access encrypted messages and locked devices. In his speech to the U.S. Naval Academy, Rosenstein revisited a high-profile fight between the FBI and Apple over unlocking the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, which the bureau eventually paid another company to open.

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Rosenstein said he wasn’t asking for a backdoor but wants private-sector companies to grant law enforcement officials a way to get the data when they have warrants. Tech firms and encryption advocates say that’s a distinction without a difference.

Conversations about law enforcement, privacy and encryption are likely to continue, though Hurd said many of his colleagues feel as he does.

A bipartisan commission from the House Homeland Security and Energy and Commerce committees published a report in December opposing granting law enforcement special access to encrypted communications.

“You can protect our digital infrastructure, chase bad guys and protect our civil liberties all at the same time. It’s hard, but we can do it,” Hurd said. “Our civil liberties are not burdens, they’re what make our country great.”

The debate centers on end-to-end encrypted systems that shield the content of customers’ communications even from the platform that’s hosting them. Other forms of encryption still allow the hosting company to decrypt messages and to share them with law enforcement if they have a warrant.

Encryption may protect data now, but Hurd warned the audience the country needs to focus its efforts on funding and advancing quantum computing, a system that goes beyond binary ones and zeroes. That technology could make current encryption methods irrelevant, he said.

“Quantum computing is important because it completely negates the digital tools and tactics we’ve been using for 50 years,” Hurd said.  

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