Senate committee chair considers bill to punish companies refusing decryption requests

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By Larry Banks

In the midst of a digital security debate, which has come to the fore sparked by Apple’s stance to protect encryption, the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee is working towards legislation to criminalise companies that don’t comply with court-ordered requests for assistance with decryption.

Citing sources familiar with the matter, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr is considering creating a bill that would find companies such as Apple in breach of the law if they don’t comply with warrants to decrypt communications and devices.

The plan is currently in the early stages, and Burr has not decided how to craft the proposed legislation. There is also no agreement between lawmakers that punitive action should be taken against companies that don’t comply with official decryption requests.

The report comes just days after a Californian judge ordered Apple to help the FBI in its ongoing investigation into the San Bernadino shooting. The request would mean Apple would have to write device-specific software that would allow law enforcement agencies to access a password-protected iPhone 5c that was used by Syed Ryzman Farook, one of the now-deceased terrorists involved in the massacre last year.

Burr wants to bridge the gulf between law enforcement agencies and tech companies, targeting encryption that could hinder investigations or the prosecution of criminals. Last year, he backed a CISA cybersecurity bill, in which private companies must report potential cyber threats to government agencies such as the NSA and Homeland Security. Apple, and many other tech companies slated the proposal on grounds of privacy concerns.

Burr also recently highlighted the difficulties faces by law enforcement officials with strong encryption such as that build into Apple devices.

“District attorneys have come to me because they are beginning to get to a situation where they can’t prosecute cases” Burr commented last week. “This is town by town, city by city, county by county, and state by state… It’s something we need to take seriously”.

Apple says it’s against software backdoors, and in response to the court order this week CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter for Apple customers highlighting the dangers of breaking its encryption protocol, adding that a successful attempt to break into iOS weaken’s the operating system. Complying with the FBI’s demands is a dangerous precedent forcing companies to bypass security systems domestically and abroad.

So far, Apple has said it will appeal the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary.

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal.

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