Silicon Valley unites against encryption bill

Silicon Valley unites against encryption bill
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Major tech firms are banding together to oppose an encryption bill that would require them to help government investigators decrypt customer data.

A coalition that includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter blasted the legislation as “unworkable” in a letter sent Tuesday to the bill’s backers, Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Tillis dodges primary challenge in NC MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community Trump remarks deepen distrust with intelligence community MORE (D-Calif.).

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The bill “would weaken the very defenses we need to protect us from people who want to cause economic and physical harm,” said the letter, which was signed by the coalition, known as Reform Government Surveillance, as well as several industry trade groups.

The efforts of Burr and Feinstein, who head the Intelligence Committee, have divided the tech community and law enforcement officials.  

The pair developed the legislation in response to law enforcement concerns that criminals are increasingly using encrypted technology to hide from authorities. The measure would require companies to provide “technical assistance” to investigators who cannot access this secure data on their own.

Prominent police commissioners, district attorneys and the advocacy groups that represent them have all come out in favor of the draft language released last week.

But the tech community, backed by privacy and civil liberties advocates, has vociferously opposed the legislation, arguing this type of assistance would undermine security and endanger online privacy.

“Any mandatory decryption requirement will to lead to unintended consequences," the groups wrote.

Under the bill, opponents argue, companies would be forced to intentionally design products with weaknesses so that the locked data could be easily accessed upon government request.

“When a company or user has decided to use some encryption technologies, those technologies will have to be built to allow some third party to potentially have access,” the coalition wrote. “This access could, in turn, be exploited by bad actors.”

The letter also asserted that the measure would drive criminals seeking unbreakable encryption to foreign competitors, “undermining the global competitiveness of the technology industry in the U.S. and resulting in more and more data being stored in other countries.”

Police officials have countered, saying companies like Apple and Google could easily bar fully encrypted foreign apps from their app stores, restricting Americans’ access to the secure technology.

Reform Government Surveillance initially launched after former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the government’s clandestine surveillance operation.

It later became a major voice during the 2015 push on Capitol Hill to overhaul the NSA’s most controversial spying programs. The companies all heavily supported the USA Freedom Act, which ended the government’s bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

With Tuesday's letter, the group has re-entered the Capitol Hill debate in a big way.

The other tech industry groups signing the letter were the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Internet Infrastructure Coalition and the Entertainment Software Association. 

The tech industry has said it would be more willing to back an alternative bill from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' MORE (D-Va.) that would establish a national commission to study how law enforcement can get better access to encrypted data without undermining digital privacy and security.

The proposed commission would comprise 16 members, including tech industry executives, privacy advocates, cryptologists, law enforcement officials and members of the intelligence community. 

McCaul and Warner introduced their bill in February and have since gathered 10 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate and 15 in the House.

The surveillance coalition called the commission "an important option to consider."

— This story was updated at 2:33 p.m.