Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill meant to prevent federal agencies from forcing technology companies to build “backdoors” into their products. The move puts Wyden at odds with James Comey, the leader of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who has argued for increased access to consumer electronic devices to assist the bureau’s efforts to investigate criminals and terrorists.
“Strong encryption and sound computer security is the best way to keep Americans’ data safe from hackers and foreign threats,” Wyden said in a statement about the bill. “It is the best way to protect our constitutional rights at a time when a person’s whole life can often be found on his or her smartphone. And strong computer security can rebuild consumer trust that has been shaken by years of misstatements by intelligence agencies about mass surveillance of Americans.”
The bill itself is two pages long. It contains two sections: one prohibiting intelligence agencies from mandating a company to “alter the security functions” of “covered products,” which are defined as “any computer hardware, computer software, or electronic device that is made available to the general public”; and another allowing exceptions for “mandates authorized under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act” that was passed in 1994.
That simplicity belies the bill’s importance. The government has been criticized for its efforts to compromise security tools ever since it was revealed in 2013 that the National Security Agency worked “covertly with tech companies to insert weaknesses into products” for over a decade. (Many companies have since denied that they purposely introduced security vulnerabilities into their products.) But instead of backing down, intelligence agencies have continued their fight.
And that’s where the FBI comes in. Comey has publicly criticized the efforts of companies like Apple and Google to improve their products’ security in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks, and he isn’t shy about his desire for the FBI to be allowed to force backdoors into the products. He even went so far as to invoke child pornographers and terrorists in his complaints, making it seem like increased security is a threat to society as we know it instead of a “win” for consumers.
Wyden’s bill is an attempt to prevent the FBI from receiving permission to force those backdoors onto consumer devices, and to show intelligence agencies that privacy itself is not a bad thing. “This bill sends a message to leaders of those agencies to stop recklessly pushing for new ways to vacuum up Americans’ private information,” he said in the statement on his site, “and instead put that effort into rebuilding public trust.” Hopefully that message won’t be falling on deaf ears.