Bipartisan Group Passes Amendment Banning FBI From Forcing Weak Backdoors To Encryption
Something happened yesterday that shows that not everything in the U.S. Congress is thoroughly messed up. A bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill for the Department of Justice that bans the Department of Justice from approaching technology companies and forcing them, or even requesting to, install backdoor evasions of encryption software.
The FBI has been forcing companies to create these encryption backdoors in order to make it easier to spy on the American people. Not only have our constitutional right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure been violated as a result, but hackers have also exploited these backdoors to steal data and engage in identity theft.
The amendment, offered by Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren, states, “none of the funds made available by this Act for the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigation may be used to mandate or request that a person (as defined in section 101(m) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801(m)) alter the product or service of the person to permit the electronic surveillance (as defined in section 101(f) of such Act (50 U.S.C. 1801(f)) of any user of such product or service.”
Poe explained, “Basically what this amendment does, Mr. Chairman, is prohibit the government from going to Apple, for example, and telling Apple that they want an encryption in cell phones that they sell to Americans, an encryption that would allow the FBI to have access to this information, which would include not just conversations, not just include emails, but it would also include text messaging as well.”
Lofgren gave three reasons to vote for the amendment: “First, it is fundamental that our privacy be protected; that the Fourth Amendment be adhered to. Secondly, we all know–and if you ask any computer scientist, they will tell you–that once the vulnerability is introduced for a good reason, it is available for hacking for very bad reasons. Finally, for competitiveness. Think how competitive it is to sell an American product around the world when everyone knows that it is compromised. Not a really good marketing tool.”
Banning the creation of backdoors to evade encryption programs won’t solve all the problems with government and private surveillance of our electronic communications, but it’s an important step. The good news is that the U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday afternoon to approve the Poe-Lofgren amendment.
The bad news is that the amendment doesn’t take effect unless the Senate includes a similar amendment in its own Department of Justice appropriations bill. Also, there’s nothing in the amendment that prohibits a government agency outside the Department of Justice to do what the FBI used to do, and force companies to create encryption backdoors in their communications projects.
If we’ve learned anything over the last decade, it’s that those in the federal government who are determined to use technology to spy against the American people are creative in finding new means to do their work. Electronic surveillance didn’t end when Congress banned Total Information Awareness, and encryption backdoors may stick around even if the Poe-Lofgren amendment enters into law.