After Apple-FBI, Congress Takes On Encryption Legislation With Burr-Feinstein Bill : All Tech Considered The top Republican and top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel are floating a bill that would mandate cooperation in encryption cases, but critics say it creates a dangerous "back door."
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The Next Encryption Battleground: Congress

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The Next Encryption Battleground: Congress

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's been a lot of tension lately between those who want personal data on devices like cell phones to be secure and those who want access to it for criminal investigations - case in point, the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI over a locked smartphone tied to the San Bernardino massacre. Now some prominent senators are pushing a bill saying companies like Apple must guarantee court-ordered access to that kind of data. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The nine-page draft bill is called the Compliance of Court Orders Act of 2016. Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee is, along with top committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein, that bill's co-sponsor.

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RICHARD BURR: I call it a follow the rule of law bill because that's what it does. It says nobody's exempt from a court order issued by a judge on the bench.

WELNA: Specifically, the bill requires those who received such a court order to provide, quote, "intelligible information or data or the technical means to get it," in other words, a key to unlock secure data. Senate Intelligence panel member Dan Coats strongly backs the bill. The Indiana Republican says Congress is acting by popular demand.

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DAN COATS: The American public have realized that if it's done in a reasonable way with legal support and oversight, there are instances where it would be feasible to force a company to unlock the phone.

WELNA: The White House declined to comment on the bill. But at last month's SXSW conference, President Obama chided those who opposed court-ordered data access.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If your argument is strong encryption no matter what and we can and should, in fact, create black boxes, then I - that, I think, does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years. And it's fetishizing our phones above every other value.

WELNA: Meanwhile, advocates for digital security are warning the Senate's proposed legislation could cause immense harm.

KEVIN BANKSTON: It is hard to overstate how disastrous for the security of all of our data as well as the economic security of our tech sector this bill would be.

WELNA: That's Kevin Bankston. He directs the Open Technology Institute at New America, a Washington think tank. Bankston says lawmakers simply don't understand the implications of forcing companies to provide digital backdoors to technology that's supposed to be secure.

BANKSTON: It's not possible to build some special access capability for the government into our most secure data without also making it vulnerable to other bad actors. And yet, this bill says we don't care. Do magic. Find a way to secure all of our data while also making it available on demand to the government at any time. And that's simply not possible.

WELNA: Others warn the proposed bill could shake people's trust in the security of American products and drive business elsewhere. Gary Shapiro heads the Consumer Technology Association. It's a trade group representing 2,400 American firms, including Apple.

GARY SHAPIRO: If American companies are forced to make sure that the government can sneak into every conversation that customers have, then normal customers who care about their security and privacy would be looking for foreign companies to supply their needs, even if they buy them abroad and bring them here.

WELNA: The bill is also causing heartburn on Capitol Hill. Oregon's Ron Wyden is the number two Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He says the proposed legislation would actually make Americans less safe.

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RON WYDEN: I will do everything in my power as a senator to prevent something like this that would damage the security and well-being of the country by weakening encryption.

WELNA: But Indiana Republican Coats says the possibility of terrorists using protected technology to plan attacks really leaves Congress no other choice.

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COATS: If there is another attack in the United States, the American people will be saying, did you do everything you possibly could to prevent this?

WELNA: The answer may depend on whether this bipartisan bill really enhances American security or undermines it. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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