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 LofgrenLive coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Hillicon Valley: House Dems release Russia-linked Facebook ads | Bill would block feds from mandating encryption 'back doors' | AT&T hired Cohen for advice on Time Warner merger | FCC hands down record robocall fine | White House launches AI panel Lawmakers move to block government from ordering digital ‘back doors’ MORE (D-Calif.) introduced the legislation along with Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGOP lawmakers demand drafts of DOJ report on Clinton email investigation Live coverage: IG releases watchdog report on FBI, Clinton probe Ryan remarks on Trump ‘spygate’ leave conservatives fuming MORE (R-Fla.), Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieSenate braces for Trump showdown over Chinese telecom giant Overnight Defense: Trump, Kim poised for historic summit | Trump blasts 'haters and losers' hours before meeting | Defense bill to include ZTE penalties | Lawmakers sound alarm over 'catastrophic' Yemen offensive Lawmakers circulate 'urgent call' for Mattis to prevent 'catastrophic' Yemen offensive MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeFive races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas Hillicon Valley: House Dems release Russia-linked Facebook ads | Bill would block feds from mandating encryption 'back doors' | AT&T hired Cohen for advice on Time Warner merger | FCC hands down record robocall fine | White House launches AI panel 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 WydenOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Supreme Court allows states to collect sales taxes from online retailers | Judge finds consumer bureau structure unconstitutional | Banks clear Fed stress tests States brace for dramatic overhaul to federal foster care funding Supreme Court rules states can require online sellers to collect sales tax 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 SessionsSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Sessions: 'We never really intended' to separate families 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 FeinsteinGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed MORE (D-Calif.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Dems call for Judiciary hearing on Trump's 'zero tolerance' Republicans agree — it’s only a matter of time for Scott Pruitt 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.