House Homeland Security Chairman: Backdoors would be a 'huge mistake'

Texas Republican Michael McCaul joins some key Democrats who could oppose potential Trump administration proposals.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Texas Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday that "creating backdoors into secure platforms would be a huge mistake."

"Instead, we need to find a way to keep our countries safe while also keeping our data safe and secure," McCaul said at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, Calif.

The remarks, geared for the presumably pro-encryption audience of cybersecurity professionals, indicate that the Republican-led Congress may not readily along with all of the cybersecurity plans put forward by the new Trump administration. Jeff Sessions, recently sworn in as the new attorney general, has suggested he is in favor of backdoors, telling Congress that government must be able to "overcome encryption."

McCaul's opposition to backdoors puts him in line with some key Democrats in the Senate. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has said he wants to protect encryption rather than weaken it, while Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon -- also on the Intelligence Committee -- is a long-time privacy advocate opposed to backdoors.

While he said he's opposed to backdoors, McCaul stressed that "terrorists are abusing encryption and social media... The phones in your pockets are the battle space."

He added, "The threat is worse than just espionage. Our democracy itself is at risk."

McCaul said he was "disappointed in the response" from both then-President Barack Obama and candidate Donald Trump to the Russian interference in the 2016 election. "There's no doubt in my mind the Russian government tried to undermine and influence our elections," he said.

The House leader said he's working on legislation to make it easier for the private sector to work with government on cybersecurity issues, noting that 85 percent of infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector. "The bad guys are leaving fingerprints on our critical infrastructure," he said. "They are sending a message... We can hit you from within."

He also said that the government needs to be ready for the "quantum future," warning that "the digital atomic bomb is on the not too distant horizon."

McCaul also indirectly referred to President Trump's executive order barring the entry of people from certain primarily Muslim nations, which is overwhelmingly opposed by the tech sector. McCaul has come under fire for advising the Trump administration on the issue and for his initial praise of the executive order. He walked back that praise, however, and has said its rollout has been problematic.

On Tuesday, he acknowledged "deep concern" about the nation's immigration policies. "This is a country built by immigrants... a magnet for creators and entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and pursue their dreams," he said. He added "the survival of liberty itself" depended on that tradition continuing.

"I will fight to ensure America continues to expand an open hand to peaceful, freedom loving people regardless of where they were born," he said. "That is how we will attract the world's best thinkers."

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