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Congress to the FBI: There's 'Zero Chance' We'll Force Apple to Decrypt Phones

FBI Director James Comey's 'national conversation' looks like it might be a quick one.
Screengrab: Brookings

The FBI's director wants Congress to force force Apple and Google to do away with default smartphone encryption. Congress, however, doesn't look to be with him.

Last week, FBI director James Comey suggested that encryption "threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place" and suggested that if Apple and Google don't remove default encryption from iOS and Android then "Congress might have to force this on companies."


Comey's proposal would have 'zero chance' of passing

But years of National Security Administration surveillance and other privacy oversteps and surveillance creep by the federal government has lawmakers skittish to do anything that'll be seen as expanding the surveillance state, even if Congress still isn't ready to roll back the laws it already has on the books.

"To FBI Director Comey and the Admin on criticisms of legitimate businesses using encryption: you reap what you sow," California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa tweeted. "The FBI and Justice Department must be more accountable—tough sell for them to now ask the American people for more surveillance power."

Issa holds considerable power on such matters, and The Hill reported that other lawmakers have echoed his sentiments. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (a California democrat who has been staunchly anti surveillance for some years now) said that Comey's proposal would have "zero chance" of passing; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the publication that he doubts more than "a handful" of lawmakers would support such a bill.

Americans have watched their government mislead the public about data collection and resist necessary oversight.

— Darrell Issa (@DarrellIssa) October 17, 2014

So, while it's disappointing Congress won't roll back NSA surveillance, it's at least heartening to hear that Congress thinks that passing a bill like Comey has suggested would be political suicide.


Comey repeatedly suggested that "bad guys" use encryption to evade law enforcement, and that it's time to have "conversation as a country about where we are, where we want to be, with respect to the authority of law enforcement."

To FBI Director Comey and the Admin on criticisms of legitimate businesses using encryption: you reap what you sow.

— Darrell Issa (@DarrellIssa) October 17, 2014

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that we've already been through this, back in the 1990s, in what was called the "Crypto Wars." The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act states that companies "shall not be responsible for decrypting, or ensuring the government's ability to decrypt" communication.

"The law specifically ensures that a company is not required to essentially become an agent of the FBI rather than serving your security and privacy interests," the EFF said in a statement.

That conversation may be occurring right now, and it appears to be a quick one: The people's elected representatives aren't with you, James.