Bill Requiring Security Backdoors On Phones & Other Devices Appears To Be DOA

Image courtesy of photographybynatalia

Last month, Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Richard Burr of North Carolina were set to bring forth legislation that would end the debate on whether companies like Apple should help law enforcement unlock users’ devices, by requiring them to do so. In spite of the bipartisan, high-level sponsorship and the spotlight of the disputes between Apple and the Justice Department, it looks like this controversial legislation may never even be formally introduced.

The Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016 [PDF], which has been circulating around the Senate as a draft since mid-April, would require companies to provide, among other things, “appropriate technical assistance” to the government when presented with a warrant for data on a secured electronic device.

There has been a lot of debate about whether or not the All Writs Act — a law dating back to 1789 — gives the government the authority to compel tech companies to undermine encryption that doesn’t have built-in backdoor access for the manufacturer.

In the recent Apple cases, the company fought federal warrants trying to compel Apple’s help in unlocking iPhones that had belonged to criminals. Apple does not have a way to unlock a user’s device without their passcode (or their fingerprint, if they’ve chosen to use the device’s biometric lock), so it would have to figure out a way to break its own encryption.

This issue was never ultimately resolved, with the federal authorities finding their own ways around the encryption in both instances.

The Feinstein-Burr legislation would have made such debate pointless, as it would effectively mandate that companies never provide the maximum level of encryption, as doing so would risk violating the law.

The draft of the bill was met with a backlash from privacy advocates, electronics and software companies, and many in the public. One petition against the bill already has more than 70,000 signatures — not bad, considering the legislation hasn’t even been formally introduced.

Most importantly, even though the DOJ has been fighting Apple and other companies in court over encryption, the Feinstein-Burr bill failed to get any sort of backing from the White House.

Now, both Feinstein and Burr are telling Reuters that there is no rush to get this bill introduced. Feinstein says she is going to get feedback from additional tech stakeholders on the issue, while Burr merely said, “be patient.”

As Reuters notes, the bill may never be brought forth for serious consideration — at least not during the current administration. Aside from the fact that the present White House doesn’t seem interested in pushing this as a legislative issue, it’s probably not wise for the two senators — both from states with significant high-tech industries — to bite the hands that feed them during an election year.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.