House bill would ban mandated tech access

A trio of House members has reintroduced a bill that would ban the government from mandating access to tech products.

“Congress has allowed the administration's surveillance authorities to go unchecked by failing to enact adequate reform,” said the three lawmakers behind the bill — Reps. Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea Trump calls on House Republicans to let committee chairs stay on the job longer MORE (R-Wis.), Thomas Massie (R-Kan.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

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The Secure Data Act is 2015’s iteration a House-passed amendment to the original Defense Department budget that didn’t make it into the overarching “cromnibus” budget passed late last year. The Senate and House also introduced versions of the measure in December.

The bill is part of the ongoing debate between the privacy community and law enforcement officials, who argue the rise of encryption that locks investigators out of devices such as iPhones could hinder legitimate efforts to thwart criminals and terrorists.

President Obama recently came out in favor of allowing some type of government access to tech services, like social media.

“With threats to our homeland ever prevalent, we should not tie the hands of the intelligence community,” the lawmakers said. “But unwarranted, backdoor surveillance is indefensible.”

A top lawyer in the intelligence community reiterated on Wednesday the administration's concern about an "all or nothing" approach to encryption. Robert Litt, the general counsel for the Office of Director of National Intelligence, said there has to be a middle ground, something technology experts view with skepticism.  

"I'm not talking about something that would sort of be an ability to sort of break open anybody's communication," he said at the Brookings Institution.  "But something that says, ‘OK, you can encrypt this, you can send this secure, but if we have lawful authority, we have the ability to decrypt it.’"

"I'm not a cryptographer, but I have to believe that there is a middle ground there," he added.

But the lawmakers behind the Secure Data Act argue hackers will eventually discover and exploit any built-in vulnerability.

The knowledge that these flaws exist also drives public mistrust in technology, ultimately hurting business as consumers move away from American products to more secure options, they said.

“The Secure Data Act is an important step in rebuilding public trust in our intelligence agencies and striking the appropriate balance between national security and civil liberty,” said the House members.

— Mario Trujillo contributed