December 7, 2015

Joint Press Release: Niskanen Center and TechFreedom Cautiously Optimistic on McCaul’s Encryption Commission



December 7, 2015, Washington D.C. — This afternoon, Rep. Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, announced plans for “the creation of a national commission on security and technology challenges in the digital age.” The Niskanen Center applauds Chairman McCaul’s resistance to impulsive and reckless legislative action on encryption. By establishing a commission where relevant stakeholders can come together to find common ground, our hope is that this will be a first step towards convincing law enforcement that weakening encryption is not the answer.

“We are cautiously supportive of Chairman McCaul’s call for a commission on encryption,” said Ryan Hagemann, the Niskanen Center’s technology and civil liberties policy analyst. “However, the Niskanen Center’s willingness to support constructive dialogue does not mean we have moved one inch from our support for strong encryption. While we have yet to see the specific text of this legislative proposal, we are optimistic that Chairman McCaul and the Homeland Security Committee will include a diverse array of stakeholders–most importantly, the technologists, security researchers, and cryptographers who understand the technical arguments at play.”

TechFreedom, a non-profit technology think tank, agrees.

“The announcement of this commission has not changed our opposition to mandatory backdoor access into encryption,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel for TechFreedom. “However, it is clear that Chairman McCaul has chosen a more thoughtful reaction to law enforcement’s concerns about encryption than those proposed by surveillance hawks. We support a dialogue that includes all relevant stakeholders in the encryption debate and hope this commission will further demonstrate the dangers of intentionally weakening encryption protocols.”

As Chairman McCaul stated in his announcement, “This is more than a ‘privacy vs. security’ challenge. It’s ‘security vs. security.’ A legislative knee-jerk reaction could weaken internet protections and privacy for everyday Americans.” Encryption is a vital component of ensuring the stability, and trust, of the online ecosystem. Security vulnerabilities will only hamper American economic competitiveness, open our critical infrastructure to attacks by criminals and terrorists, and make average Americans less secure in their online life. McCaul recognized this when he cautioned that “we should be careful not to vilify encryption itself, which is essential for privacy, data security, and global commerce.”

Chairman McCaul’s resistance to calls for brash action on encryption is a promising development. We hope the commission will find a reasonable path forward on providing law enforcement with the tools they need to combat terrorism and criminal misconduct.

“We are supportive of this commission to the extent that it is far preferable to uninformed legislation,” Hagemann said. “Mandatory security back doors, however, cannot be part of that solution. That is a red line for the Niskanen Center, and one that we will not cross.”