Jun 3, 2020 - Technology

Lawmakers want to encrypt Congress' network

Illustration of an eye comprised of numbers and symbols.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In a letter released last month, an ideologically diverse group of senators and congressmen, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), wrote to the Senate’s sergeant at arms and the House’s chief administrative officer requesting that all calls on unclassified lines between the House and Senate be encrypted, in order to prevent foreign spying.

Why it matters: According to the letter, first reported by The Verge, calls within the Senate were not encrypted until August 2018, making them “vulnerable to interception by any hacker or foreign government that gained access to the Senate’s internal network.”

  • Only some phones used by the House offer encryption. And calls between the two legislative chambers are still unencrypted.
  • The lawmakers cite the Pentagon’s recent work to encrypt its unclassified networks as an example of the government’s realization of the need to protect sensitive communications from foreign espionage.
  • This is a fix that Congress can make on its own through tech upgrades and coordination between the House and Senate.

The fears motivating this request are legitimate.

  • For years, U.S. counterintelligence officials were vexed by what they believed was a long-running effort by Russian intelligence officers on U.S. soil to map out, and potentially compromise, the country’s fiber-optic cable network, particularly the points where data transfers occur.
  • On at least one occasion, a former official previously told me, U.S. intelligence officials observed a suspected Russian spy actually break into a data closet to tap into a network.

These suspected Russian spies would often engage in what appeared to FBI officials as bizarre behavior — like getting out of their car at a rest stop, circling a tree a few times, and driving away.

  • The anomalous sojourns, officials realized, were often near U.S. military bases.
  • In the end, U.S. spy hunters concluded that the Russian spooks may have wanted to tap the communications of these military bases — or to exhaustively map them in order to have agents disrupt them in case of a war between the U.S. and Russia.

The bottom line: Even communications that aren’t classified can be sensitive and have intelligence value. As the prior Russian effort shows, spy services have devoted immense time and energy to mapping out nonclassified communications channels.

Go deeper