Senate Intel leaders huddle on encryption bill amid Apple fight

Senate Intel leaders huddle on encryption bill amid Apple fight
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Senate Intelligence Committee leaders met Monday to discuss legislation that could require companies to unlock phones under court order.

The meeting was part of a monthslong push from Sens. Richard BurrRichard BurrDems pledge to fight Sessions nomination Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates Shakeup on Senate Intel: Warner becomes top Dem MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman's hopes for Trump | Senators seek to change Saudi 9/11 bill | Palin reportedly considered for VA chief Lawmakers praise defense bill's National Guard bonus fix CIA head warns Trump: Undermining Iran deal would be 'disastrous' MORE (D-Calif.) — the Intelligence committee's leaders — to offer a bill that gives law enforcement better access to encrypted data.

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“I think it is coming along,” Feinstein told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s not easy, because some people want it much more complicated than it needs to be.”

“We’re trying to think through the whole thing and whether we can do something that is organic that changes to reflect the changes in technology,” Burr said a few hours later. “That might not be what we can do. But we’re attempting to work through that.”

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., the FBI and law enforcement have warned that extremists were increasingly using encrypted platforms to hide from authorities, or “go dark.” They have pressed tech companies to offer some form of guaranteed access to encrypted data.

Burr and Feinstein also vowed to introduce legislation that would require firms to unlock data when compelled by court order.

But the tech community — backed by privacy advocates on Capitol Hill — has pushed back. They say the type of access sought by law enforcement would introduce vulnerabilities that would expose all devices and data to hackers and foreign spies. Unbreakable encryption, they say, is essential to protecting global digital security and online privacy.

These disagreements were thrust into the spotlight last week when Apple rebuffed a court order directing the company to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

The FBI wants Apple to create software that would disable a failsafe feature that wipes the iPhone’s memory after an incorrect password has been entered 10 times in a row.

Apple — backed up by many tech industry groups and privacy advocates — has characterized such software as a dangerous “backdoor” that could be exploited by hackers to crack all iPhones.

But the FBI insists its request is “quite narrow” and would not create a permanent vulnerability into Apple products.

The standoff has led to renewed calls from several Republicans for a bill that would force Apple to comply.

“Regrettably, the position [CEO] Tim Cook and Apple have taken shows that they are unwilling to compromise and that legislation is likely the only way to resolve this issue,” Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonGOP lawmakers praise Trump for Taiwan call Cotton says he trusts Trump on promise to focus on presidency Katie Pavlich: A tyrant, not a hero, is dead MORE (R-Ark.), an outspoken proponent of bolstering government surveillance authorities, said last week.

Burr, who has called on Apple to comply with the court order, told reporters on Tuesday the bill must address more than simply “the issue du jour.”

“That’s not what the committee is trying to tackle,” he said. “That’s something between the FBI and Apple. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to understand [how] technology evolves over time.”

But the Senate Intelligence chairman was clear that he wants some way for law enforcement to bypass encryption.

“You’ve got encryption in technology companies, you’ve got encryption in banks, you’ve got encryption in every part of industry,” he said. “Is now the precedent that’s been set, any company can say, well, my system’s encrypted, you can’t have that information? Then all of a sudden, every district attorney in the world can’t prosecute a crime, potentially.”

The Burr-Feinstein proposal has yet to gain broad support on Capitol Hill, with influential committee leaders speaking out against the idea or withholding an endorsement for the time being.

A vocal, bipartisan coalition of tech-focused, privacy-minded lawmakers has strongly backed Apple's recent decision. The group maintains Congress should not pass any bill that would affect digital security tools.

Another bill set for introduction soon would establish a national commission to study how law enforcement can access secure data without endangering people’s privacy. Apple has backed the commission proposal.

David McCabe and Katie Bo Williams contributed