House lawmakers struggled in their questioning of law-enforcement officials at a Tuesday hearing to grasp the basics of encryption, resulting in the assorted witnesses making several eyebrow-raising technological claims.
The first part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the encryption debate featured testimony from Amy Hess, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s science and technology branch; Thomas Galati, the chief of the New York Police Department’s intelligence division; and Charles Cohen, a captain in the Indiana State Police and the commander of its Intelligence and Investigations office.
The hearing came six days after the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced a bill that would require tech companies to be able to provide investigators with access to encrypted data when they receive warrants.
In recent years, law-enforcement and intelligence officials, concerned that terrorists and criminals are hiding behind unbreakable encryption, have urged Congress to require tech companies to design their encryption so that they can bypass it. But technologists, civil-liberties advocates, and leading independent security experts overwhelmingly oppose this idea, arguing that adding so-called “backdoors” to encryption would fundamentally and dangerously weaken it.
It became evident early in the hearing that the law-enforcement witnesses did not understand the technical specifics of the encryption debate any better than most of their congressional questioners.