By Yaël Ossowski | Watchdog.org
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wants to ban the practice of requiring tech companies to integrate back doors into their devices, allowing the federal government to snoop on Americans.
In a bill introduced Thursday, titled the Secure Data Act, Wyden, a Democrat, lays out the case for scrapping government requirements for companies who produce cell phones and computers to include capabilities for law enforcement and federal agencies to secretly access user data.
“This bill sends a message to leaders of those agencies to stop recklessly pushing for new ways to vacuum up Americans’ private information, and instead put that effort into rebuilding public trust,” said Wyden in a statement on his website.
If passed, the bill would amend the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, passed during the Bill Clinton era, which requires telecommunications firms to “enable the government to intercept” all communications “in a format such that they may be transmitted by means of equipment, facilities, or services procured by the government,” according to the law.
It is with this in mind that many tech companies, such as Apple and Google, have been accused of placing back doors in their systems, most recently by security researcher Jacob Appelbaum and forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski. The companies have so far denied such claims.
Wyden is perhaps most recognized for his questioning of the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March 2013, who stated, under oath, the government was not collecting “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
The revelations brought forth by the documents leaked by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden revealed that to be a lie. More than a year and a half later, Clapper still has his job and has not been brought up on perjury charges.
Some figures in the government are pushing back against legislation that would prohibit government agencies from working with tech firms to enable tools for law enforcement.
One of them is Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James Comey. He’s argued for companies to allow government to access their technologies as a means of keeping it safe from hackers or terrorists, what he describes as “crypto-wars.”
In October, he called for a “regulatory fix” to the wave of encryption now set by default on the new phones made by Apple and Google.
“We need our private-sector partners to take a step back, to pause, and to consider changing course,” Comey said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. in October. “We also need a regulatory or legislative fix.”
But Comey pushed back against the ideas that government agencies need back doors in order to do their jobs.
“There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called ‘back door,’ one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit,” he stated.
“But that isn’t true. We aren’t seeking a back-door approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law,” Comey said.
“We are completely comfortable with court orders and legal process — front doors that provide the evidence and information we need to investigate crime and prevent terrorist attacks.”
Despite Comey’s assurances, Wyden and several of his colleagues are determined to enshrine protections into law to avoid any further compromising of Americans’ privacy by federal agencies.