It is not very often that I have praised a government agency or even Congress. However, every now and then the federal government surprises me and, this time, it is in the cyber security arena. The majority staff for the House Committee on Homeland Security issued a report regarding the current debate on encryption. The report was titled, “Going Dark, Going Forward.”
The encryption issue is a hotly debated issue in Congress. Both sides-the private sector and the Federal government have legitimate issues and concerns. The private sector views encryption as one of the most effective weapons they have against a computer hacker. When one tries to hack an encrypted computer, the hacker would need to break the code in order to access the information. The government’s concern is that encryption is also used by terrorists. The ability for them to use encryption and the lack of a “backdoor” prevents the government from trying to stop a terrorist act. The tricky part in this debate is how to balance those interests. The typical Washington approach is an all or nothing approach. Whereby both sides will fight to the death to prevail. To learn more about the encryption debate, please visit this article.
In reading the majority staff’s report, I was surprised by its conclusion-we need time to learn more about encryption and we need help in understanding the potential consequences in policy. Needless to say, I was surprised because that kind of admittance would usually get you fired in Washington.
What the majority staff did is a lesson in regulatory humility.
Regulatory humility calls for a government agency or in this case, Congress to recognize that the technology will outpace any proposed legislation. The easiest thing Congress can do is proposing legislation that would attempt to address every issue. The unintended consequence would be to stifle innovation. The opposite approach would be to draft legislation that balances the interests of both the private and government sector and at the same time allow for the encryption technology to evolve.
One would hope that Congress would adopt this approach for other issues. But I think that would be wishing for too much.