Lawmakers move to block government from ordering digital ‘back doors’

Lawmakers move to block government from ordering digital ‘back doors’
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A bipartisan group of House lawmakers have introduced legislation that would block the federal government from requiring technology companies to design devices with so-called back doors to allow law enforcement to access them.

The bill represents the latest effort by lawmakers in Congress to wade into the battle between federal law enforcement officials and tech companies over encryption, which reached a boiling point in 2015 as the FBI tussled with Apple over a locked iPhone linked to the San Bernardino terror attack case.

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Top FBI and Justice Department officials have repeatedly complained that they have been unable to access devices for ongoing criminal investigations because of encryption. FBI Director Christopher Wray has suggested that devices could be designed to allow investigators to access them, though he insists the bureau is not looking for a “back door.” 

The bipartisan bill introduced Thursday would prohibit federal agencies from requiring or requesting that firms “design or alter the security functions in its product or service to allow the surveillance of any user of such product or service, or to allow the physical search of such product” by the government.

Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenWomen poised to take charge in Dem majority Live coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed MORE (D-Calif.) introduced the legislation along with Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' GOP leader wants Twitter CEO to testify on ‘shadow banning’ Here's why social media users need a ‘bill of rights’ MORE (R-Fla.), Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieRand Paul’s Russia visit displays advancement of peace through diplomacy Republicans win elections by restoring faith of Americans Pelosi blasts Trump administration: Allowing 3D printed guns is a ‘death warrant’ MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeCook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R-Texas).

The bill would also block courts from issuing an order to compel companies to design products with “back doors” to allow for surveillance or law enforcement searches.

The legislation makes an exception for mandates, requests or court orders that are authorized under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, a 1994 law requiring telephone companies to make changes to their network design in order to make it easier for the government to wiretap phone calls.

The bill’s introduction comes following an FBI inspector general report that found the bureau did not exhaust all avenues when trying to unlock the San Bernardino suspect’s iPhone before pursuing a court order to force Apple to break into the device.

Critics have argued that the report shows the FBI was more interested in establishing a legal precedent to get companies to bypass encryption than in actually unlocking the phone.

Lofgren and other sponsors of the bill were among a group of lawmakers who wrote to Wray in April describing the report as “troubling” and suggesting that the FBI could find solutions to unlocking encrypted devices on the market instead of designing devices in order to allow law enforcement to probe them. Some, like Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGroup files lawsuit to force Georgia to adopt paper ballots Treasury releases proposed rules on major part of Trump tax law Rubio slams Google over plans to unveil censored Chinese search engine MORE (D-Ore.), argue that altering the design of digital devices to allow for such access would weaken security. 

Lofgren’s bill is identical to legislation she introduced back in 2015. The bill, along with its companion in the Senate sponsored by Wyden, never went to the floor for a vote.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSantorum: Mueller could avoid charges of McCarthyism by investigating DOJ, FBI 8,000 new ways the Trump administration is undermining immigration court independence Watergate's John Dean rips Trump: I doubt you have any idea what McGahn told Mueller MORE said this week that Congress may ultimately need to “take action” to solve the encryption problem. He and other officials have said the FBI was unable to break into thousands of devices last year despite having warrants to probe them.

Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records Democrats question if Kavanaugh lied about work on terrorism policy Dems urge tech companies to remove 3D-gun blueprints MORE (D-Calif.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records 2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump Five things to know about Bruce Ohr, the DOJ official under fire from Trump MORE (R-Iowa), meanwhile, are said to be in the early stages of pursuing their own legislation in the Senate, though the details of what a prospective bill would look like are unclear.