Senator Feinstein Revives Encryption Back Door Bill with FBI Support

3 minute read
| Analysis

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is dusting off her bill aimed at forcing technology companies to give the U.S. government access to the encrypted data on our smartphones, tablets, and computers. FBI Director James Comey is on board with her plan saying the inability to access our encrypted data is a major security threat to the country.

Director Comey told the Judiciary Committee that more than 3,000—or nearly half—of the smartphones the FBI tried to access in the first half of the year were impenetrable walls. The encrypted data they hold can’t be viewed and is vital to FBI investigations, he said.

Senator Diane Feinstein pushes law requiring tech companies to give law enforcement access to our private encrypted data and communications

Bill giving law enforcement access to our encrypted data comes back to life

The proposed law Senator Feinstein is introducing started life last year as the Burr-Feinstein bill following the San Bernardino mass shooting ans subsequent fight between the FBI and Apple over unlocking an iPhone 5c recovered from one of the suspects. The phone was encrypted and the FBI didn’t have the passcode to unlock it, so agents asked Apple to get them into the phone’s content.

Apple doesn’t have any way to bypass the built-in security features on an iPhone or iPad, so the FBI got a court order to force Apple to make a hackable version of iOS they could use to unlock the phone. Apple refused saying intentionally weakening iPhone privacy protections posed a major security risk to all iPhone owners. They claimed the hackable iOS could be used by criminals, hackers, and rogue governments to access personal information, private conversations, credit card and bank account information, and more.

Apple also said there wouldn’t be any way to keep the hackable iOS from eventually leaking and falling into the wrong hands. The FBI and Department of Justice said that wouldn’t happen, and it would be used just for the San Bernardino case to unlock the shooter’s iPhone.

Other law enforcement agencies, and even other FBI cases, however, were already looking to use the hackable iOS in investigations. Director Comey even said during Congressional hearings on the debate over whether or not Apple should comply with the court order that doing so would “set a precedent” and could lead to other investigations wanting to use the hack.

The FBI dropped its fight with Apple only hours before a scheduled court hearing when Cellebrite managed to hack into the iPhone. That wasn’t the end of the fight, however, because weeks later Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Feinstein introduced their bill to force technology companies to include what amount to back doors into our personal encrypted information.

The bill fizzled out fairly quickly when they couldn’t get the support it needed to move forward.

Welcome Back, Encryption Back Door Bill

Now Senator Feinstein is ready to try again and Director Comey is giving it his own thumbs up. She said, “We had looked at legislation that would take into consideration events of national security and provide that devices — there must be some way of even going before a judge and getting a court order to be able to open a device.”

Director Comey replied saying, “What nobody wants to have happen is something terrible happen in the United States and it be connected to our inability to access information with lawful authority. We ought to have the conversations before that happens.”

He says companies need to find ways to comply with court orders granting law enforcement access to our encrypted data. Since that’s typically not possible today, companies would have to build back doors into their products allowing court mandated access.

Director Comey says he isn’t asking for a back door, but instead simply wants tech companies to find a way to let law enforcement see the data encrypted on our devices. He said,

We all love privacy, we all care about public safety and none of us want backdoors—we don’t want access to devices built in in some way. What we want to work with the manufacturers on is to figure out how can we accommodate both interests in a sensible way.

An Encryption Back Door By Any Other Name

The problem with Director Comey’s argument is that in essence he is looking for a different word for “back door.” Giving law enforcement agencies a way to see data that’s otherwise encrypted without using the owner’s passcode requires an alternate way to access the data, and that’s the essence of a back door.

As Apple and many security experts have noted, a back door law enforcement uses is a weakness others can exploit, too. Knowing there’s a built-in security weakness will attract hackers, and eventually someone will find the crack—or someone will leak it.

Changing the words used to describe what Senator Feinstein and Director Comey want doesn’t change what it really is: in intentional weakness in our personal encryption, our private communication, and our online credit card transactions.

The push to erode privacy and online security hasn’t gone away, and the fight to protect encryption is ongoing. Sadly, it seems our legislators and law enforcement have lost sight of the inevitable change should this bill become law: the people they aim to protect will be even more vulnerable, and the people they want to target will simply find other ways to encrypt their data and communication.

[Thanks to TechCrunch for the heads up]

8 Comments Add a comment

  1. Old UNIX Guy

    Thanks, Senator Feinstein, for the timely reminder that while the Republicans are masters of the stupid idea, they don’t have an exclusive lock on stupid ideas.

    Old UNIX Guy

  2. If the get this, within a month all the bad guys out there will have access to it too.

    However, it will do nothing for national security. No matter what the lying, ignorant POS Comey says. The bad guys, and a lot of us good guys, will just start using encrypted tunnels, encrypted messaging, encrypted e-mail, and store our data in encrypted files in the cloud all of which will route through countries that DO protect our rights.. This will accomplish nothing to get the people he says he wants to get, while severely damaging those of us he says he wants to protect.

  3. furbies

    Why doesn’t Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) understand ?

    A door, be it front, back, or side is a freaking bloody door that anyone may walk through if they either have a key, or can “force” ?

    Mind you, I notice that none of these proponents of weakening our privacy, ever offer to open up their whole entire private lives to public scrutiny 24/7 for all to read/see/examine ? Because once Apple does create a backdoor into iOS, then we’re not even remotely going to safe, or able to keep things private !

  4. MacFrogger

    It makes me (more than) mildly nauseous to see Corey’s on-going fixation on a back door into our devices. That DiFi backs this effort is not a surprise either, to anyone who knows her politics…

    Not said: Of course if the US govt forces Apple to do this, then the Chinese govt will demand access to the door as well. As will Russia, and every other repressive govt out there. How many advocates for democracy will go to jail on trumped up charges vs how many terrorists will they catch? Perhaps a better question to ask is: How many advocates for democracy will go to jail after being labeled “subversives”, “enemies of the state” or “terrorists”?

  5. Scott B in DC

    Ms. Feinstein is currying favor with the law enforcement community. She knows that the bill will go nowhere. And there’s a rumor that she will not run again in 2018 since she’s over 80 and will retire. Ignore it an move on… nothing to see here!

  6. gnasher729

    Before you guys do something stupid, what about asking the NSA about their opinion? When in doubt, the NSA is much better suited to answer questions about encryption and the consequences of weak encryption. And the NSA will tell you that while weak encryption may make it possible to find out the secrets of the bad guys, it also makes it possible for the bad guys to find out the secrets of the good guys. (Your definition of “bad” and “good” might be different depending on who you are).

    The NSA has _always_ said that the overall result of weakened encryption is severe damage to the security of the USA. Obviously being the NSA, they don’t care about the security of anyone else, nor do they care about privacy, both things that we would care about, but just on the grounds of “security of the USA” they tell everyone that weakened encryption is _bad_.

    BTW. My wife went through some drawers of unused stuff and found her old Nokia phone. Which has no encryption whatsoever, and there is no information stored on it that could ever help the FBI in any investigation. So the FBI is in no different situation now then it was 10 years ago: If they found a suspect’s phone, they couldn’t get any information out of it.

  7. gnasher729

    Comey may still want to break our phone security. But the chief of the FBI doesn’t want that anymore. Because there is no chief of the FBI right now. We’ll see what the next one says.

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