Republican senatators have proposed a new bill that would end the use of unbreakable encryption by tech companies on the basis that it helps “terrorists and other bad actors to conceal illicit behavior.”
The so-called Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act is proposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee).
“Terrorists and criminals routinely use technology, whether smartphones, apps, or other means, to coordinate and communicate their daily activities,” Graham said in a statement. “In recent history, we have experienced numerous terrorism cases and serious criminal activity where vital information could not be accessed, even after a court order was issued. Unfortunately, tech companies have refused to honor these court orders and assist law enforcement in their investigations.”
Graham says that his position on this issue is clear. He believes that law enforcement that gets the correct court authorization must be able to access the data it needs. The rules laid out in the bill mean device makers or service providers would have to help crack encrypted messages.
“Tech companies’ increasing reliance on encryption has turned their platforms into a new, lawless playground of criminal activity,” Senator Tom Cotton said. “Criminals from child predators to terrorists are taking full advantage. This bill will ensure law enforcement can access encrypted material with a warrant based on probable cause and help put an end to the Wild West of crime on the internet.”
It didn’t start with this bill: The battle over encryption
People on both sides of the political spectrum have been arguing back and forth about strong encryption for years. Along the way it has frequently involved Apple, which incorporates encryption into its products. In the U.S., the FBI’s concerns about Apple encryption reportedly date backs as far as the introduction of FaceTime in 2010. However, it wasn’t until a few years later that the FBI had its biggest face-off with Apple over strong encryption.
In December 2015, shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people and injured 22 after opening fire at an office party in San Bernardino, California, in an apparent terrorist attack. After the shooting, the FBI discovered an iPhone 5c belonging to Farook. However, Apple declined to create a backdoor that would allow the investigators to unlock the handset. Eventually the FBI cracked it through alternate means.
Since then, Apple has doubled down on its focus on encryption and privacy. Understandably, this has become politically contentious on both sides. Some, like Apple, say that they will help law enforcement where possible, but won’t create a backdoor for weakening encryption. Others, as seen with this bill, suggest that strong encryption encourages law-breaking.
In a 2016 interview, Tim Cook said that the U.S. government should be pushing for more encryption, not less. “Think about the things that are on people’s phones,” he said. “Their kids’ locations are on there. You can see scenarios that are not farfetched at all. Where you can take down power grids going through a smart phone. So there’s all kinds of things that as we looked at it, we think the government should be pushing for more encryption. That it’s a great thing. It’s like the sun and the air and the water. It’s a superb thing.”