Congressional Rep. John Carter Discovers Encryption; Worries It May One Day Be Used On Computers To Protect Your Data

Here’s a suggestion: if you’re a Congressional Representative whose job it is to regulate all sorts of important things, and you state in a hearing “I don’t know anything about this stuff” before spouting off on your crazy opinions about how something must be done… maybe, just maybe educate yourself before confirming to the world that you’re ignorant of the very thing you’re regulating. We famously saw this during the SOPA debate, where Representatives seemed proud of their own ignorance. As we noted at the time, it’s simply not okay for Congress to be proud of their own ignorance of technology, especially when they’re in charge of regulating it. But things have not changed all that much apparently.

We already wrote about FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre Congressional hearing earlier this week, in which he warned those in attendance about the horrible world that faced us when the FBI couldn’t spy on absolutely everything. But the folks holding the hearing were suckers for this, and none more so than Rep. John Carter. The ACLU’s Chris Soghoian alerts us to the following clip of Carter at that hearing, which he says “is going to be the new ‘The Internet is a Series of Tubes'” video. I would embed the video, but for reasons that are beyond me, C-SPAN doesn’t use HTTPS so an embed wouldn’t work here (randomly: Soghoian should offer CSPAN a bottle of whiskey to fix that…).

Here’s the basic transcript though:

Rep. John Carter: I’m chairman of Homeland Security Appropriations. I serve on Defense and Defense subcommittees. We have all the national defense issues with cyber. And now, sir, on this wonderful committee. So cyber is just pounding me from every direction. And every time I hear something, or something just pops in my head — because I don’t know anything about this stuff. If they can do that to a cell phone why can’t they do that to every computer in the country, and nobody can get into it? If that’s the case, then that’s the solution to the invaders from around the world who are trying to get in here. [Smug grin]

FBI Director Comey: [Chuckle and gives smug, knowing grin]

Carter: Then if that gets to be the wall, the stone wall, and even the law can’t penetrate it, then aren’t we creating an instrument [that] is the perfect tool for lawlessness. This is a very interesting conundrum that’s developing in the law. If they, at their own will at Microsoft can put something in a computer — or at Apple — can put something in that computer [points on a smartphone], which it is, to where nobody but that owner can open it, then why can’t they put it in the big giant super computers, that nobody but that owner can open it. And everything gets locked away secretly. And that sounds like a solution to this great cyber attack problem, but in turn it allows those who would do us harm [chuckles] to have a tool to do a great deal of harm where law enforcement can’t reach them. This is a problem that’s gotta be solved.

Holy crap! Rep. John Carter just learned about encryption! And he thinks it’s only on mobile phones but (ooooh, scary) might one day be used on “big super computers” to keep stuff safe. But he doesn’t realize that it’s been widely used for many, many, many years to keep his very own data safe and many of ours as well.

The conversation continues with Carter again demonstrating confusion over some rather basic concepts:

Carter: If you’re following the Bill of Rights, you have every right to be able to go before a judge, present your probable cause, and if he sees it, that’s a right, get a warrant and get into that machine. And I don’t think there’s a right of privacy issue in the world that prevents you following the law.

Uh, right. There isn’t a right of privacy issue that prevents the FBI from going and getting a warrant, but the larger argument is whether or not individuals can protect other things privately — and they’ve always been able to do so. If you and I have a conversation just between the two of us, there is no way for the government to then find out what that conversation was about. Because there’s no way to “decrypt” a verbal conversation that is now stored entirely in our minds. That’s been true forever. Yet we don’t see Rep. Carter or Director Comey demanding recording devices to record every conversation. But, to Carter, the fact that you might be able to do the same thing with your email, is a “monster.”

Carter: So if that’s what they’ve created, they’ve created a monster, that will harm law enforcement, national security and everything else in this country. And this really needs to be addressed. And I wasn’t even going to talk about that, but that upsets the heck out of me. ‘Cause, you know, I don’t think that’s right.

Yeah, Rep. Carter, you’re kind of decades too late. And you’re totally wrong, too. It didn’t create a monster. It didn’t harm “everything else in this country.” It protected millions of law abiding people — including Carter by keeping their data safe. That’s the whole point of encryption. Saying that “it needs to be addressed” is ridiculous. However, it does make it clear that Rep. Carter was being honest at the beginning when he admitted “didn’t know anything about this stuff.” Perhaps he should have stopped there.

At the end there’s this bizarre dialogue about how law enforcement and judges handle information in a locked safe, but it seems like Carter still doesn’t understand the question, finally saying that it’s “bad policy” to have a safe that can’t be opened by the manufacturer and “a crisis.” So is Rep. Carter arguing that all safe’s need to have backdoors that the manufacturers can open?

Doesn’t Rep. Carter have staffers who can point out to him that computer encryption has been around for decades, and it’s what keeps all sorts of stuff safe, including his banking details, his credit card purchases, the confidential memos he receives in Congress and much, much more? And yet, he’s suddenly discovered encryption and he’s decided it’s bad because it might, someday, end up on computers?

And he’s in charge of these issues? Yikes!

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