Apple, FBI Testifying Before Congress on Encryption Again

Apple and the FBI are headed back to Washington to answer questions about law enforcement investigations and encryption. Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell and FBI science and technology executive assistant director Amy Hess are scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday, April 19.

FBI Director James Comey testifying last month on encryption and law enforcement investigationsFBI Director James Comey testifying last month on encryption and law enforcement investigations

The two will be testifying on separate panels along with University of Pennsylvania computer security expert Matthew Blaze, New York Police intelligence bureau chief Thomas Galati, and Indiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force commander Charles Cohen, according to Reuters.

This is just the latest hearing in the ongoing debate over how much access law enforcement should have into our personal data and if encryption should be protected. On one side, rights groups and technology companies are saying we need strong encryption to protect free speech and online activities. On the other side, law enforcement agencies say encryption hobbles their investigations.

FBI Director James Comey launched a public crusade against end to end encryption earlier this year by trying to force Apple to create a version of iOS that didn't include the safeguards preventing brute force attacks on lockscreen passcodes. Without those security features in place, the FBI could hack into any iPhone and see its encrypted contents.

Apple resisted the FBI's court order saying the government didn't have the authority to force companies to create tools to hack their own encryption, and that complying would set a precedent where other companies would be expected to do the same.

The FBI contends that any backdoors or other hacks for law enforcement could be controlled and kept safe, while Apple says any security weakness available to the government is also available to anyone else, including hackers, criminals, and enemy governments.

Mr. Sewell and Director Comey appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in early March to testify on the same topic. Aside from showing emotions run high in the encryption debate, the hearing didn't lad to any definitive conclusions. It did, however, show that the FBI and Department of Justice are resolute in their efforts to force backdoors into our encrypted data, and that Apple is digging in its heals to fight those efforts.

The problem with the encryption fight as it stands today is that law enforcement thinks it's battling to easily access encrypted data on devices such as our smartphones and computers for investigations. Instead, the fight is really about whether or not strong encryption should be legal.

If law enforcement gets its way, the protections encryption provides will be worthless because once intentional weaknesses are introduced security and privacy are lost. Encryption is a binary option: either we have it or we don't, and creating backdoors means encryption provides no security.

The FBI wants to strip away encryption in the name of security. If it succeeds through the courts or legislation, the security law enforcement claims it's protecting will be stripped away, too. Hopefully that's something Congress will come to understand in part though hearings like these.