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 LofgrenFEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' MORE (D-Calif.) introduced the legislation along with Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal MORE (R-Fla.), Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieMassie wins House GOP primary despite Trump call to be ousted from party Rep. Massie called out by primary opponent for previous display of Confederate flag House holds first-ever proxy votes during pandemic MORE (R-Ky.) and Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeSheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Texas New Members 2019 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 WydenCongress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse 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 SessionsSupreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Tuberville campaign bus catches fire in Alabama 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 FeinsteinBottom line Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats Senate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections MORE (D-Calif.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP IRS, taxpayers face obstacles ahead of July 15 filing deadline Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits 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.