Law enforcement mobilizes behind encryption bill

Law enforcement mobilizes behind encryption bill
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Major law enforcement organizations are lining up to support a controversial bill that would give investigators greater access to encrypted data.

In the past few days, prominent police commissioners, district attorneys and the industry groups that represent them have pressed Congress to move on a bill that would force companies to provide “technical assistance” to government investigators seeking secure data.

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“The legislation provides the necessary lawful access by law enforcement and prosecutors to critical digital evidence that has become more and more of an integral part in today’s investigations in the field,” said a joint letter from the National District Attorneys Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The measure, from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick Republicans set sights on FBI chief as Russia probe investigations ramp up Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing MORE (D-Calif.), is a response to law enforcement concerns that criminals are increasingly using encrypted technology to hide from authorities.

The two lawmakers released an official discussion draft of their legislation last week.

While law enforcement has long pressed Congress for such a bill, the technology community and privacy advocates caution that guaranteeing access to secure data will undermine security and endanger online privacy.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer | Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee | Border wall water use threatens endangered species, environmentalists say Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer MORE (D-Ore.), a tech-focused privacy advocate, has already vowed to filibuster the bill over these concerns.

But leading law enforcement officials are using their sway to try to get the measure passed.

They say companies are failing to comply with legal court orders and impeding legitimate investigations.

For instance, Apple recently defied an FBI court order directing it to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The government only dropped its request after discovering a way to bypass the phone's security without Apple's assistance.

Police officials around the country have hundreds of seized phones that they cannot access because tech companies refuse to help.

“Law enforcement cannot do this alone,” said New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. “I have long sought legislation that would compel application developers and phone manufacturers to adhere with orders from a court.”

The recent terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and Brussels have led to increased calls for congressional action. Lawmakers say they believe encryption helped the attackers evade authorities in each incident, though little evidence has been presented to back up the claims.

“As terrorist acts rock Europe, law enforcement’s ability to legally intercept communication is critical to uncovering the next plot,” Bratton said. “No key piece of evidence in disrupting an attack or identifying a child predator should be beyond the reach of the law.”

Also supporting the bill is Cyrus Vance, the outspoken district attorney for New York County.

“For the past year and a half, Apple and other large technology companies have effectively decided who can and cannot access crucial evidence in criminal investigations,” he said in a recent statement. “In the absence of legislation to address the seismic impact of warrant-proof encryption on public safety, they have rendered themselves — not judges — gatekeepers of critical information necessary to solving crimes on behalf of victims across the nation.”

The FBI Agents Association, Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, and Major County Sheriffs' Association have also expressed support.

— Updated 3:42 p.m.