Apple vs. FBI: A look at proposed laws on phones and encryption

As the battle between Apple and the FBI drags on, there’s movement on the legislative front, from California to France.

There’s a bill reportedly being drafted in the U.S. Senate that would impose fines on tech companies that do what Apple is doing now: refuse to cooperate to help the government get access to encrypted data. This legislation, from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr of the Senate Intelligence Committee, could be introduced as soon as next week, Reuters reports. The legislation would impose only civil penalties despite earlier reports that it would include criminal penalties, Reuters said.

In California, a state assembly bill introduced in January and amended this week calls for a ban on default encryption in all smartphones sold in the state. The bill would impose a $2,500-per-phone-sold penalty on phone makers that fail to comply. A similar measure has been proposed in New York.

And this week, French lawmakers advanced a bill that would impose criminal penalties on companies that don’t cooperate with authorities when it comes to encrypted data — including jail time for executives. The harsher penalties were part of an amendment to a bill introduced after the November terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.

The Senate bill would encounter myriad issues, including the state of Congress — no matter what your political persuasion you can’t argue with the numbers, which show that this Congress is on pace to be the least productive in history — plus constitutional questions and public sentiment.

Speaking of public sentiment, Apple executives continue their full-court press. Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, reportedly said this week that giving in and helping the FBI unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone could set a dangerous precedent in that “someday they will want [Apple] to turn on [a user’s] camera or microphone. We can’t do that now, but what if we’re forced to do that?” Cue’s comments come on top of CEO Tim Cook’s widely reported statements, and recent talk from Apple’s top software guy, Craig Federighi.

As for the state bills, the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that they aren’t realistic because of their obvious limitations (to phones sold in the state), and could possibly be deemed unconstitutional because they would burden interstate commerce.


Photo: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in 2013. Feinstein, currently the Senate Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman, is reportedly preparing to introduce legislation that would penalize companies that don’t cooperate when the government wants access to encrypted data. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)


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