Proposed Senate bill underscores high-tech battle between security and privacy

The Senate Intelligence Committee delivered a draft of a long-awaited encryption bill, setting the stage for another high-profile debate pitting national security against consumer privacy. And it comes just as California legislators killed a similar effort.

The proposed federal legislation would give courts the power to force companies to provide technical assistance to law enforcement authorities in criminal investigations or matters of intelligence. The bill is sponsored by Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The effort comes on the heels of a high-profile showdown between federal authorities and Apple, which made headlines when it defied a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone belonging to a killer in December's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The dispute ended when the FBI paid professional hackers to break into the device, apparently taking advantage of "at least one" previously unknown vulnerability in iOS.

While the San Bernardino case appears to be resolved, Apple continues to fight similar battles against federal prosecutors in at least nine cases across the country. CEO Tim Cook has publicly maintained that creating a "back door" allowing access to its devices would enable criminals and governments to violate its customers' privacy.

The bill's sponsors say they plan to "solicit input from the public and key stakeholders" before they introduce the bill formally. If passed, the legislation would allow courts to require developers, hardware manufacturers, service providers and others to provide assistance to law enforcement authorities seeking to access encrypted data.

Proponents say the measure is necessary to combat terrorism and other potential threats in an era of ever-increasing mobile data. But critics claim the bill threatens consumer privacy and is logistically impractical – if not worse.

"This draft legislation, which mandates that companies decrypt information transmitted by their equipment or provide the means to do so when ordered by a court, fails to take into account the technological complexities and could present more national security risks than it solves," said Democratic Congressman Jerry McNerney of California in a prepared statement. "Such a mandate, if enforced, could introduce vulnerabilities into our national security, making it easier for criminals, terrorists, and other bad actors to gain access to secure information."

Meanwhile, California legislators defeated a bill that would have imposed penalties on companies that refused to provide access to authorities during investigations involving encrypted devices and services. The bill died before even getting to a vote, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The proposed federal legislation is sure to face opposition from the tech industry, among others, and it faces an uphill battle in a gridlocked Congress in advance of a presidential election. But it's a clear indication that many more high-tech battles concerning privacy and security are on the horizon.

For more:
- see this Reuters piece
- read this Sacramento Bee story

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