New Encryption Bill Could Stop States From Getting a Backdoor Into Your Smartphone

PHOTO: Apple, Google and other technology giants have signed a letter urging President Obama to support device encryption. PlayGetty Images
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Whether authorities should be given a so-called backdoor to access encrypted smartphones has been an ongoing tug-of-war between many Silicon Valley power players and government officials, but a pair of lawmakers are hoping their new bill will have the final word when it comes to protecting smartphone security.

The ENCRYPT Act of 2016 -- short for the "Ensuring National Constitutional Rights of Your Private Telecommunications Act" -- is a proposed federal law that has the stated purpose of overriding "data security vulnerability mandates and decryption requirements" at the state level.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said on Twitter he was spurred to act following proposals at the state level in New York and California that he said would create "hackable" backdoors to smartphones.

The Argument for Loosening Encryption

At issue is whether the government should be pushing technology companies to implement so-called back doors to their operating systems, allowing law enforcement a way to bypass encryption and get information to track down terrorists and other criminals.

Supporters of loosening encryption say it can be a matter of national security.

Case in point: FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday that two months after the San Bernardino massacre, the FBI and the intelligence community cannot open one of the smartphones used by the couple who perpetrated the attack. Not having access to the encrypted messages in the phone would prevent authorities from knowing who they were talking to, texting or what they might have been viewing on that particular device.

The Argument for No 'Backdoors'

Those supporting encryption -- the ENCRYPT Act of 2016 -- say creating a so-called backdoor for law enforcement would leave devices open to hackers.

In a letter to President Obama last year, Google, Apple, Facebook and dozens of cyber-security experts and trade groups said giving the government the master key to decode encrypted data could leave billions of people vulnerable to cyber criminals and deal a detrimental blow to information security.

Apple turns on encryption by default, meaning law enforcement would have to have a person's passcode to access any data on an iPhone. Google also offers users encryption options with the recent Lollipop and Marshmallow versions of the Android operating system.