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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday set up what's likely to be the most consequential national debate on encryption since the 1990s.

The big picture: The technical community's long-held consensus against weakening encryption is colliding head-on with bipartisan political hostility toward the Big Tech companies that are making encrypted communications an internet default.

Key terms to know: Law enforcement agencies see the spread of encryption as a problem they call "going dark." Most security experts view modifying encryption schemes to give government access as the creation of "back doors" that they see as inherently treacherous.

  • On one side: Lawmakers and law enforcement advocates argue that the end-to-end encryption that's increasingly built into messaging platforms and mobile devices is unacceptably hampering efforts to combat terrorism, human trafficking and child abuse.
  • On the other: Tech companies and privacy advocates maintain that weakening encryption for law enforcement needs also inevitably opens vulnerabilities that bad actors can exploit — including foreign governments, criminal hackers and legal authorities overstepping their bounds.

Driving the news: Senators from both sides of the aisle lit into representatives of Apple and Facebook at the Tuesday hearing, telling the companies that if they don't voluntarily find a way for the government to access the data it seeks to stop crimes, Congress will legislate one.

  • New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. testified that Apple's decision to begin encrypting iPhone content by default in 2014 "effectively upended centuries of American jurisprudence holding that nobody's property is beyond reach of a court order."
  • Erik Neuenschwander, Apple's manager for user privacy, told the senators that Apple has never held keys that let it access users' data, and it opposes efforts to require it to do so: "We've been unable to identify any way to create back doors that would only work for the good guys. They will be exploited by nefarious entities as well."
  • Jay Sullivan, product management director for privacy and integrity at Facebook Messenger, argued that if the U.S. mandates weakened encryption for U.S.-based services, customers will simply switch to services offered by companies abroad that will be less responsive to American authorities.

Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr has been pursuing his own campaign, launched with a speech last summer, promoting the need for back doors to encrypted devices and communications.

  • In October, Barr, along with officials from DHS and European and Australian law enforcement, sent Facebook a letter requesting the company adopt such a scheme for WhatsApp and Messenger. Monday, the company responded "no."

History lesson: The U.S. government's one significant attempt at the creation of encryption back doors — the Clinton administration's Clipper Chip program, which lasted from 1993 to 1996 — was a technical and market failure.

  • Each Clipper Chip had its own key that private companies held in "escrow" to hand over under government order. But the scheme wasn't mandatory, experts hated it and the industry never embraced it.

That '90s fight took place right as the formerly academic internet went mainstream, and it pitted "crypto rebels" against a government establishment, with the telecom industry caught in between.

  • Today, the fight is instead between the government and a group of rich tech companies that have amassed vast power while facing a growing roster of controversies involving user privacy, failures to curb misinformation, monopolistic behavior, and accusations of bias.

Our thought bubble: We could end up with an encryption law for the 2020s that mandates some kind of updated Clipper Chip (likely via software rather than hardware) — not because anyone thinks it will work, but because lawmakers and voters of both parties have lost trust in the tech companies that oppose it.

Go deeper

Updated 38 mins ago - Sports

IOC: Belarus sprinter who sought refuge in Tokyo "safe"

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus in 2019. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought refuge in Tokyo, is in the care of Japanese authorities and the UN refugee agency is now involved in her case, an International Olympic Committee official told reporters Monday.

The latest: Officials in Poland and the Czech Republic have offered to help the 24-year-old sprinter, who refused national team orders to board a flight home after being taken to Tokyo's Haneda airport Sunday following her criticism of Belarusian coaches, per Reuters

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy crosses the finish line ahead of American Fred Kerley in the men's 100m final on day nine of the Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

🚨: IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

🏃🏾: Italy's Lamont Marcell Jacobs: Reconnecting with U.S. father "gave me the desire to win" Olympic 100m sprint race.

🥇High jumpers persuade Olympic officials to let them share gold

🏌️‍♂️: Golfer Xander Schauffele wins gold for U.S. by one shot

🤸🏿‍♀️: Simone Biles won't compete in Olympic floor finals, individual vault or uneven bars

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 2 hours ago - Sports

IOC "looking into" American Raven Saunders' Olympic podium gesture

Team USA's Raven Saunders gestures on the podium with her silver medal after competing in the women's shot put event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sunday. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee is "looking into" U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders' gesture on the Tokyo Games podium after she won a silver medal, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams told reporters Monday.

Why it matters: Saunders told AP she placed her hands above her head in an "X" formation while on the podium to stand up for "oppressed" people. The IOC has banned protests during the Tokyo Games.