Tech World Up In Arms Over Leaked Senate Encryption Bill Draft

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Rachel Stoltzfoos Staff Reporter
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The tech community voiced trepidation at a draft bill introduced Thursday in the Senate that would require companies like Apple to make all of their user data accessible to the government.

In sweeping terms, the draft bill stipulates all creators or providers of communication services, such as iPhones or WhatsApp, must be able to provide “intelligible data” to the government under court order, which would effectively outlaw popular user-based encryption services. The Hill published the nine-page document authored by Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Richard Burr online Thursday night.

“If this [bill] becomes the marker that people use to discuss [data privacy laws] moving forward, then that’s incredibly disconcerting,” Morgan Reed, executive director of an association of more than 5,000 app developers, ACT | The App Association, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Whoever creates, controls, owns or provides the data service would be responsible to make sure the government can access usable data when necessary under the law. Platforms like the app store would also be on the hook, and businesses selling an encryption product designed to keep user information private would be forced to undermine that product by ensuring the government can get access.

“The impact on small business would be incredible,” Reed told TheDCNF. “Instead of writing the product you know that your users want, you have to write a product that gets by the app store and the app store has to police it for some crazy law that requires you to build a back door in it.”

The bill stipulates businesses would be compensated for any direct cost incurred by the requirement to obtain the information, but Reed told TheDCNF it’s impossible to estimate the cost to innovation the bill could exact.

“Oftentimes it’s ten people working together for peanuts, or borrowing money off of their mothers house in order to bring an amazing product to market,” he said, referring to tech startups. “There is no directly incurred compensation that could cover the fact that you have to take your developers off of getting a product to release, and instead write code for the government so that they can spy on your users.”

The new legislation follows a high-profile battle between the FBI and Apple, in which the FBI demanded Apple create a way for the FBI to hack into one of its users phones — the San Bernardino shooter. Apple refused to comply with the FBI and was taken to court, but the battle never played out, because the FBI later figured out a way to hack into the phone without Apple’s help.

Other members of the tech world quickly sounded their displeasure over the draft bill.

“I can say without exaggeration that this draft bill is the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate tech policy proposal of the 21st century so far,” Kevin Bankston, Director of New America’s Open Technology Institute said in a statement Friday.

“For the first time in America, companies that want to protect their customers with stronger security will not have that choice,” Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden told reporters Friday. “They will be required by federal law per this statute to decide how to weaken their products to make Americans less safe.”

Johns Hopkins cryptography professor Matthew Green tweeted Friday the bill is as “clueless and unworkable” as he expected it might be.

In a joint statement following the leak of the draft document, Sens. Feinstein and Burr said it’s still a work in progress. “The underlying goal is simple: when there’s a court order to render technical assistance to law enforcement or provide decrypted information, that court order is carried out,” they said, according to Reuters. “No individual or company is above the law.”

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