President Donald Trump’s attorney general pick Jeff Sessions has amplified the encryption debate with comments he made during Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings last week stating law enforcement should be able to “overcome” digital locks in criminal investigations.
Sessions’ position on encryption immediately sparked an outcry among civil liberties groups that have loudly denounced the government’s desire to access encrypted data.
“We will strongly oppose any legislative or regulatory proposal to force companies or other providers to give Sessions what he’s demanding: the ability to ‘overcome encryption,'” wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorneys Nate Cardozo and Andrew Crocker in a statement Monday.
Last week, as part of his grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was asked if agreed with NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and other national security experts who have said “strong encryption helps protect this country from cyberattack and is beneficial to the American peoples’ digital security?”
Sessions replied (PDF):
“Encryption serves many valuable and important purposes. It is also critical, however, that national security and criminal investigators be able to overcome encryption, under lawful authority, when necessary to the furtherance of national-security and criminal investigations.”
The EFF countered, “this answer is a clear endorsement of backdooring the security we all rely on.” Cardozo and Crocker wrote it is unfeasible for encryption to serve “many valuable and important purposes” and still be “overcome” when the government wants access to plaintext.
Sessions’ position supports those of the FBI, which in the past said it has favored encryption backdoors in tech products and services.
For his part, President Trump, hasn’t publicly taken a position on encryption. However during the Apple-FBI debate, he blasted Apple on the campaign trail for not cooperating with the FBI and called for a boycott of Apple products.
Last month, the Congressional Encryption Working Group released its year-end report that concluded that encryption backdoors do more harm than good. The bipartisan congressional panel recommended that the U.S. support strong encryption and that “Congress should foster cooperation between the law enforcement community and technology companies.”
Sessions is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. In 1986, President Reagan nominated Sessions to be a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. He failed to win the votes needed for that appointment.
Sessions has a reputation for his conservative views, being tough on crime and advocating the use of electronic surveillance by law enforcement. Sessions’ voting records as senator show he supported NSA wiretapping during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” He was also an advocate for provisions within the Patriot Act that promoted domestic surveillance and so-called “roving” wiretaps. In 2004, Sessions supported attempted changes to the Patriot Act that would bar companies from notifying customers of National Security Letter requests for their data.
“Code is speech, and no law that mandates backdoors can be both effective and pass constitutional scrutiny. If Sessions follows through on his endorsement of ‘overcoming’ encryption, we’ll see him in court,” Cardozo and Crocker wrote.