Washington politicians are split between those who care about encryption and those who don’t

Encryption is a hot topic in Washington.
Encryption is a hot topic in Washington.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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In the politically divided United States, it’s rare to find an issue that unites both Democrats and Republicans. But if the remarks of Washington insiders at the South by Southwest Interactive festival last week are any indication, privacy is a rare bipartisan concern.

The five-day festival in Austin, Texas featured more than a half-dozen sessions on encryption—including a hotly debated keynote from president Barack Obama, in which he asked privacy supporters in the technology community to compromise on the issue of encryption. (His remarks were tied to the current battle between the FBI and Apple over whether the tech giant should be forced to build a “backdoor” allowing access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.)

Several Republican members of Congress at SXSW were quick to advocate for a harder line on encryption. At a policy happy hour sponsored by the Center for Democracy and Technology, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California was adamant that backdoors to encryption software would be used by the government to surveil its citizens. “Your right to privacy is worth a little criminality in the name of liberty,” he said to the room, paraphrasing the recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former covert CIA officer who has publicly backed Apple in its fight with the FBI, spoke on a separate panel about the cybersecurity debate.

“Our civil liberties are not burdens,” he said. “They’re the thing that makes our country great. We can protect our privacy and fight bad guys at the same time.” If you give law enforcement the keys to people’s private information, he argued, the bad guys can get them, too.

Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts to strengthen Washington’s commitment to privacya re already underway on Capitol Hill. Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill in February that would establish a National Commission on Security and Technology Challenges. The commission would bring together tech leaders, law enforcement, the intelligence community, privacy and civil liberties advocates, and global business leaders. Its goal would be to develop recommendations for maintaining privacy and digital security while also keeping criminals and terrorists from exploiting technology.

Warner, in yet another session on entrepreneurship at SXSW, begged tech-savvy audience members who might be feeling fed up with the government to maintain their faith in Washington. “Don’t tune out the political system,” he said.

Conversations at SXSW also highlighted the difficulties of developing a consensus around privacy protections. Part of the problem is that it’s not simply a question of privacy versus security, as Amit Yoran, president of the computer and network security firm RSA, said at a panel on Silicon Valley’s tensions with Washington.

In fact, Yoran said at the panel, there are at least four distinct camps with unique interests in the encryption debate. The intelligence community doesn’t want to weaken encryption—a stance exemplified by current National Security Agency director Michael Rogers as well as his predecessor Michael Hayden and former national security official Richard A. Clarke, who served under the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations. Meanwhile, law enforcement (like the FBI) wants access. Corporations want to defend their networks, and worry that weakening encryption could put make them vulnerable to hackers and corporate espionage. And the general public is concerned about both protecting their civil liberties and ensuring national security, with their priorities shifting depending on recent events.

Given these conflicting interests, it’s no surprise that Washington is having a hard time coming to a resolution on encryption. But while strong divisions continue to pit conservatives and liberals against one another, SXSW made clear that there is another, increasingly important rift growing between officials who care about encryption and those who don’t.