Activists up pressure on White House to reject encryption bill

The Obama administration is under increasing pressure from privacy activists to disavow legislation that would force companies to help investigators decrypt data upon request.

More than three dozen activists, academics and advocacy groups sent the White House a letter on Monday urging it to oppose the bill, which they say “would threaten the safety of billions of internet users.”

{mosads}The White House is currently reviewing a draft of the measure from Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.),  the leaders of the Intelligence Committee.

The legislation is a response to concerns that criminals and terrorists are increasingly using encryption to hide from authorities. 

Law enforcement has long pressed Congress for a bill that would give them greater access to this locked data. But the tech community and privacy advocates insist such access would undermine security and endanger online privacy.

Encryption only works, they say, if it is inaccessible.

The measure, called the “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” would direct companies to offer “technical assistance” to help government officials access encrypted data, according to a discussion draft first obtained by The Hill last week.

“This bill essentially asks device manufacturers, service providers, and application developers to do the impossible —­­ to somehow keep their users secure while facilitating third-­party access to information,” the letter says.

The ramifications could be far reaching, the letter claims. Weakened global security hurts online commerce and could endanger human rights activists, journalists and dissidents in oppressive countries that rely on encryption.

“If the White House is unable to reject such an extreme proposal as this one out of hand, it raises serious concerns about the administration’s dedication to human rights and the digital economy,” the activists say.

The White House has yet to weigh in publicly on the Burr-Feinstein legislation. The administration last week denied reports it had already decided not to back the bill.

President Obama will be briefed on the latest version of the measure this week.

“Mr. President, this is an important issue of safety,” the letter insists.

The White House has been signalling for months that it is poised to issue a more detailed, long-term policy vision on encryption.

Administration officials have tread carefully on the subject, maintaining that they support strong encryption, while also expressing concerns about investigators’ diminished access to secure data.

Digital rights groups such as Access Now and the Center for Democracy and Technology signed on to the letter, as did media freedom groups, including the Center for Media Justice and the Free Press Action Fund.

Libertarian think tank Niskanen Center was on the letter, as well.

James O’Keefe, the controversial conservative activist behind Project Veritas, also signed the memo.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Richard Burr
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