Republicans are making another attempt to undermine end-to-end encryption. On Tuesday, three GOP senators introduced a bill that would force US tech companies to help law enforcement bypass the encryption if ordered to do so by a court.
The bill comes from senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), who say the encryption is hindering US law enforcement from catching criminals and terrorists.
It’s the main argument the FBI and the Justice Department have made over the years in calling for Apple and Facebook to weaken the encryption in their products. However, the same technology also protects the privacy of everyday consumers. With end-to-end encryption, even the provider of the hardware or app has no way to access the user information inside —only the device owner does.
The FBI has managed to circumvent the restriction by buying up professional hacking tools from third-party security companies, which can then be used on seized smartphones taken in arrests. Still, federal investigators say they need more access.
The bill from the three GOP senators tries to reconcile the encryption debate by leaving the matter up to the courts. Under the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, if US law enforcement secures a search warrant from a judge, a tech company must comply and aid investigators in gaining access to the user’s device or account.
The same bill also gives the US Attorney General the power to prod US technology companies into complying with the court order. For instance, the Attorney General can demand the product provider supply a timeline of when access to the encrypted data will be available to federal investigators.
“Our legislation respects and protects the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans,” claimed Senator Graham in a statement. “It also puts the terrorists and criminals on notice that they will no longer be able to hide behind technology to cover their tracks.”
To no surprise, US Attorney General William Barr also supports the bill. However, critics say the proposed legislation would come at the cost of every user’s privacy. To enable the government access, tech companies would need to weaken the encryption across their products —potentially exposing consumers to other threats, such as hackers and government spies.
“At a time when cyberthreats from criminals, hackers, and nation states are on the rise, our nation’s leaders should not be calling on companies to weaken the encryption that allows us all to communicate privately and securely,” tweeted Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook.
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Republican senators are essentially trying to outlaw manufacturers from creating encrypted systems that US law enforcement cannot access.
“You cannot build a backdoor that only law enforcement can access. That’s not how encryption works,” added Alan Butler, EPIC interim executive director.