Senate bill would force tech companies to help law enforcement agencies hack suspects' devices

The Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016 would force companies to help law enforcement break into suspects' encrypted devices.
By Doug G. Ware   |   April 8, 2016 at 7:35 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- Technology and privacy advocates are sounding alarm against draft legislation in the U.S. Senate that aims to force tech companies to help law enforcement agencies break into encrypted devices in cases similar to the FBI's recent fight with Apple.

The proposal -- from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. -- was first obtained by The Hill congressional blog Thursday. It effectively requires tech firms, in accordance with a court's order, to hack into devices involved in criminal investigations when authorities can't do it.

Circulation of the legislation comes just weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice took Apple to court in an effort to force the company to help the FBI break into the smartphone of San Bernardino terror suspect Syed Farook. In that case, Apple refused to provide technical assistance, even when ordered to by a federal court.

The legal fight split the nation into two camps -- those who supported the government's efforts to fight terrorism, and those who expressed concern over citizens' privacy.

The Justice Department dropped the court fight last month after it was able to get into Farook's phone without Apple's help -- but the issue hasn't gone away.

In fact, the Justice Department still needs Apple's help in another case involving an accused drug trafficker in New York.

"The proposed policy is misguided and will ultimately lead to increased insecurity rather than increased security," Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, said Friday.

"This bill is a clear threat to everyone's privacy and security," Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, added.

The crux of the bill's argument is that terrorists and criminals are increasingly relying on encrypted electronic devices to hide from authorities -- and that investigating agencies need some kind of recourse.

As it is only in the draft legislation stage, the Senate measure, called the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016, still has a ways to go before it can become law.

"We're still working on finalizing a discussion draft and as a result can't comment on language in specific versions of the bill," Burr and Feinstein said in a joint statement Friday. "We're still in the process of soliciting input from stakeholders and hope to have final language ready soon."

Critics, however, say the potential harm such a law could invite isn't worth the benefit gained by the law enforcement community.

"I gotta say in my nearly 20 years of work in tech policy this is easily the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate proposal I've ever seen," Kevin Bankston, the director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said.

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