There is a battle raging over your smartphone. No, this isn’t another version of Angry Birds. Instead, it has to with smartphone decryption and unlocking all of its secrets. Why does this matter?
The recent shooting in San Bernardino left behind few clues to motive and operational planning, but there was a cell phone recovered from one of the shooters. Homeland Security, the FBI and CIA all would like to know what’s on that phone. They politely asked Apple to build a program that can unlock it. Apple politely refused.
Welcome to the battle. Your phone is encrypted. But if certain lawmakers have their way, it won’t be encrypted for long.
California and New York Lead the Decrypt Charge
The shooting that started all this talk of decryptions went down in California. New York had 9/11 and several other terrorist plots. It makes sense that their respective lawmakers would want to compel smartphone manufacturers to make phones that can be decrypted.
Consider this on the same level as the shoe bomber reaction. One guy makes a failed attempt at carrying a bomb in his shoes onto a plane, and the entire nation has to go barefoot through TSA screenings. These bills can be seen as a fear-based reaction of “what if.” What if another terrorist has a phone we can’t get into?
If these bills were to be signed into law, then the smartphone manufacturers would have to design phones that would be exclusively sold in California and New York. It’s not clear what would happen if someone were to cross state lines and buy an encrypted phone. Is that call for arrest? Those are the tricky sorts of questions that will need to be sorted out.
Smartphone Decryption Vs ENCRYPT Act
In response to those separate bills targeting phone manufacturers, a new bill has been generated in Congress. The sponsors are Rep Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.). Yes, a Republican and a Democrat actually came together for a piece of legislation. The result is the “Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,” or ENCRYPT.
Here’s what it says. A state can’t force a manufacturer or anyone else involved in production of a phone to allow it to be searched or to assist in hacking open the contents of the phone. States want smartphone decryption because it is also not possible to decrypt information on a person’s phone if it’s encrypted.
Essentially, that is a big, “slow your roll” coming from the federal government. If passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, this law would render the state laws null and void. At least that is what they hope it will do.
Privacy Concerns and the Constitution
For Rep. Lieu, it all comes down to privacy concerns as spelled out in the Constitution. That would be the document everyone claims to hold dear. There is that Fourth Amendment clause about unlawful search and seizures that would be the basis for pro-encryption. In a way, the ENCRYPT Act is every bit as reactionary is the smartphone decryption bills. Here the fear is that once that key is created, it can be used by all kinds of nefarious agents both foreign and domestic.
Lieu believes the people begging for a backdoor encryption key are considering just this one case and not looking forward to the future. He says a key made for the FBI could easily fall into the wrong hands, noting the recent hacking of the Department of Justice and Office of Personnel Management.
Back to the Courts
Right now, all of those bills are working their way through the system. As for the Apple standoff, that too appears to be headed for a showdown in court. In the latest wrinkle, the husband of one of the victims in that shooting is taking the side of Apple.
Salihin Kondoker’s wife, Anies, was shot three times but survived. In response to the decryption request, Salihin wrote a letter to the judge reviewing the matter. He shared the contents with Time Magazine.
The letter said that while initially Kondoker was angered by what he saw as an Apple roadblock to the investigation, he slowly came around to the tech giant’s side. He says the fight is about something more important than just the contents of a single phone. If Apple makes the decryption software the government wants, it could be used to compromise the information of millions in the future, which makes Kondoker uncomfortable.
Kondoker’s final words to Apple were to “stay firm.” It appears that’s what both sides intend to do in this heated debate. It may be some time before it reaches a conclusion.
Megan Ray Nichols writes about a variety of topics, from science to technology and everything in between. Join the discussion on twitter!