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After Apple Case, Encryption Vs. National Security Dilemma Has Just Begun


The standoff between Apple and the U.S. Justice Department ended this week after the FBI found a way to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters - but without Apple's help. That particular case may be over before it started, but not the fight over encryption. Some lawmakers are working on legislation that would allow federal judges to order tech companies to help law enforcement access encrypted data. But others in Congress are working on a bill that would form a 9/11-style commission on encryption and security to study the issues. Representative Ted Lieu of Southern California is a co-sponsor of that legislation, and he joins us. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

TED LIEU: Thank you.

SIMON: And why a commission?

LIEU: These are very complex issues that deal with national security, civil liberties, privacy. And I think we should have a lot of smart people look at these issues and make sure we don't do anything that will have unintended consequences.

SIMON: You have a background in computer science, I gather, at least an academic background.

LIEU: I am a recovering computer science major.

SIMON: Well, then help us understand this issue if you can. Is it wise for Congress to try and limit encryption if overseas companies don't have to have that same concern. Are we just limiting the ability of U.S. companies to compete?

LIEU: That's a great question. We need to have strong encryption all over the world. Imagine if GE could only have strong encryption in, let's say, Britain, but not here in the United States. That wouldn't make much sense. And keep in mind - when you don't have strong encryption, we have had massive data breaches, cybertheft. There are a lot of bad things that happen if you do not have strong encryption.

SIMON: At the same time, Congressman Lieu, haven't we, alas, already learned pretty painfully how criminal groups and terrorists use encryption?

LIEU: What's interesting that you sort of mention those two groups together because there has been not a single case that the FBI or anybody else can come up with that would have showed that had the FBI had a back door to a smartphone that they could have stopped any terrorist attack anywhere. What the FBI really is trying to do is to make some law enforcement investigations easier so they can prosecute criminals. It is not a terrorism issue. It really is a law enforcement investigatory tool issue. And the question is - do you want to make some law enforcement investigations easier, but damage national security in the process?

SIMON: I think the logic goes that if they can crack the encryption code of people who've participated in a terrorist act, they might use it to trace back to other elements of that terrorist cell so that it's not just a matter prosecution, but it can be an investigative tool at the same time.

LIEU: Possibly, although they haven't shown that either. And if you, for example, look at what happened in the Paris attacks, the reports show that the terrorists used these burner - temporary phones, so terrorists are pretty smart. And if they know that, you know, their smartphone is going to be hacked into, they just won't use it.

SIMON: Do you come down on one side or the other, Congressman?

LIEU: I support a national security establishment which, in a report a few years ago, came out very strongly saying the U.S. needs to have a strong encryption with no vulnerabilities. And I'm also on the side of privacy. I do believe that people should have a right to their privacy unless the government can get a warrant on you.

SIMON: Representative Ted Lieu of California - thanks so much for being with us.

LIEU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.