Congress might give law enforcement a ‘backdoor’ into encrypted messages

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The FBI finally hacked an iPhone 11
Congress might use child abuse as an excuse to weaken the encryption in Apple Messages and similar apps.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

No one could protest legislation aimed at curbing child sex abuse, but a bill that reportedly will be introduced soon in the US Congress could have much wider consequences. One result might be a legally mandated requirement that messaging services have a “backdoor” so that law enforcement can read all encrypted messages.

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act has as its stated goal, “to establish a Nation Commission on Child Exploitation Prevention.” This commission would be lead by the US Attorney General. It will be charged with developing “recommended best practices regarding the prevention of online child exploitation conduct.”

In the proposed legislation is an addendum to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That current law shields companies like Facebook, Google and Apple from criminal liability if their platforms are used for illegal acts. The EARN IT act would remove that protection in cases of child exploitation.

A backdoor for end-to-end encrypted messages?

There could be another consequence from this proposed legislation that might affect almost every iPhone, Mac and iPad user. These computers all have Apple’s Messages app that encrypts communications completely. Even Apple can’t find out what people are saying, not even when ordered by a court warrant. The situation is similar for some rival services.

This proposed EARN IT act, as it’s currently written, says nothing specific about end-to-end encryption. But some US legislators recently criticized this practice. They claim these messaging services are being used by criminals, including child pornographers. They want a “backdoor” built into these systems so police can read otherwise encrypted communications.

Tech companies, including Apple, argue that any backdoor placed in encryption for law enforcement would inevitably be exploited by hackers.

These businesses already expressed concern about the EARN IT act, according to Reuters. They think it might give the Attorney General the power to order a backdoor be placed in encrypted messaging systems.

Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation