Proposed Law Would Require U.S. Companies to Unlock Encryption under Court Order

The encryption controversy in the U.S. isn’t going away anytime soon. Two U.S. senators have proposed requiring companies to unlock encrypted technology when a court calls on them to do so, changing the current law and escalating a conflict between the technology industry and the U.S. government, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Richard Burr
Sen. Richard Burr

The conflict that arose when a federal court ordered Apple to help unlock an iPhone used in a terror attack has fueled the encryption controversy.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel’s vice chairman, have proposed legislation that addresses one of the most difficult issues facing policymakers, which is how to address the use of private technology on behalf of law enforcement.

Law Requires Compliance

The “discussion draft” requires companies served with a court order to give such information or technical assistance when the government wants to obtain encrypted material.

A company would have to help the government if the data has become unintelligible on account of a feature or service that is owned, provided by or created by the covered entity or a third party on the covered entity’s behalf.

Congress has faced pressure to balance privacy and security in regards to encryption. The courts have struggled with the issue, most recently in conflicts between Apple Inc. and the Justice Department over defendants’ encrypted iPhones.

Privacy Versus Security

Burr said he has long believed data is too insecure and he feels strongly that consumers have the right to find solutions protecting their information, which involves strong encryption. He said he does not think those solutions should be above the law.

Sen. Diane Feinstein
Sen. Diane Feinstein

Apple chose not to comment on the proposal. The draft’s chances for adoption are considered slim in the short term.

Apple and other technology companies have opposed any rule that they should help circumvent encryption, which is currently commonplace in smartphones and other devices.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other lawmakers have said they would oppose any efforts to weaken encryption.

Wyden said the legislation would prohibit Americans from protecting themselves as much as possible. He said it would outlaw the best types of encryption and weaken cybersecurity for millions.

Other lawmakers from both parties, supported by law enforcement officials, said Congress has to intervene due to concerns that criminals and terrorists use encryption tools to conceal crimes and plan attacks.

A wide range of companies would have to comply with the requirement if it becomes law, including software manufacturers, remote communication companies and electronic communication companies.

Technology Companies Object

Technology companies oppose undermining encryption and have said that to comply with court orders they would need to alter how they encrypt messages, which would likely require them to retain access to keys that unlock communication. Many companies do not currently have such keys.

Industry leaders also say weakening encryption would make it easier for foreign governments and hackers to get consumers’ data or private messages.

Images from Shutterstock and Wikimedia.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.