Congress Tells FBI There’s ‘Zero Chance’ Of Giving The Bureau Backdoor Access To Americans’ Cellphones

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Members of Congress wasted little time before shooting down a proposal by FBI Director James Comey to give the bureau a backdoor into Americans’ cellphones — a request made in response to new privacy standards adopted by Apple and Google.

“[W]e have to find a way to help these companies understand what we need, why we need it, and how they can help, while still protecting privacy rights and providing network security and innovation,” Comey said last week about his request that Congress update the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to force companies like Apple and Google to give the government direct access to users’ smartphones. (RELATED: FBI Asks Congress For Backdoor Access To All Cellphones For Surveillance)

Last month both companies announced new default encryption of all customer data, which in Apple’s case, not even the company will be able to access without a users’ password. Law enforcement heads at all levels across the country, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have criticized Google and Apple since the companies’ announced changes, which law enforcement reps argue will make it easier for criminals — especially pedophiles trading in child pornography — to evade arrest. (RELATED: Eric Holder: It’s ‘Worrisome’ That Apple And Google Are ‘Thwarting’ Law Enforcement By Encrypting User Data)

“We need our private-sector partners to take a step back, to pause, and to consider changing course,” Comey said.

Comey has received little support on Capitol Hill in the few days since his proposal, with influential lawmakers across both chambers decrying the request.

“To FBI Director Comey and the Admin on criticisms of legitimate businesses using encryption: you reap what you sow,” California Republican and Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa wrote in a recent tweet. “The FBI and Justice Department must be more accountable — tough sell for them to now ask the American people for more surveillance power.”

Long-time anti-surveillance California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren said in a Hill report earlier this week that such a request has “zero chance” of passing.

“I think the public would not support it, certainly industry would not support it, civil liberties groups would not support it,” Lofgren said. “I think [Comey is] a sincere guy, but there’s just no way this is going to happen.”

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden speculated no more than “a handful of members would support the idea of backdooring Americans’ personal property”– a policy that could also hurt companies’ bottom lines and U.S. economic competitiveness, according to Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Who in Europe is going to buy these newly compromised cell phones if Congress insists that they be made with backdoors for U.S. law enforcement?” Nojeim said. “It’s probably one of the worst job killers a member of Congress could propose.”

Other experts have also warned such “backdoors” could make Americans’ phones prime targets for hacking, data theft and exploitation.

This year’s House voting record doesn’t bode well for Comey — in a landslide 293-123 vote, the lower chamber defunded similar “backdoor” warrantless searches of U.S. communications by the National Security Agency earlier this year, and the House has already passed its version of the U.S.A. FREEDOM Act NSA reform bill which, although watered down from its original version, still strips the agency of its possession of Americans bulk telephone metadata. (RELATED: House Passes Bill To Cut NSA Funding, Close ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance)

Comey’s request also comes amid a crammed and closing legislative calendar on a midterm election year, with a major National Security Agency reform bill still awaiting a vote in the Senate. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)

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