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Lawmakers call for Silicon Valley, FBI collaboration in encryption debate

A congressional working group is calling for more cooperation between Silicon Valley tech giants and the U.S. government following occasional clashes over access to encrypted devices.

In a series of recommendations released Dec. 20, lawmakers from the bipartisan Encryption Working Group argue that while there is no "one-size-fits-all solution" to the debate about whether so-called "backdoor" access to encrypted devices should be afforded to law enforcement, any congressional action designed to weaken encryption technology "works against the national interest."

The working group, composed of members of the House Judiciary Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, formed in March in the wake of a bitter conflict between Apple Inc. and the FBI.

Apple has taken a strong stance on encryption, arguing that a demand by the FBI that the company create a new version of its operating system lacking several security features would compromise consumers' privacy.

The debate reached a fever pitch after a federal magistrate judge in California ruled in February that Apple needed to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to help the FBI gain access to the iPhone of a man who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.

The Apple conflict was temporarily resolved after the FBI used another means to obtain access to the phone used by the San Bernardino shooter. But other forms of "legal hacking," or exploiting a security vulnerability in a device to gain access, may still cause a conflict between private firms and law enforcement agencies, the congressional working group noted.

The group argued that the U.S. government could play a role in reducing "distrust" between law enforcement and private technology firms by exploring existing alternatives employed by law enforcement agencies, including the analysis of metadata collected as a consumer surfs the web.

Other options, such as compelling an individual facing a criminal investigation to provide access to their devices, could also face potentially thorny legal issues, the group noted.

But moving forward requires more cooperation from all sides, the group said. "There is no 'us versus them,' or 'pro-encryption versus law enforcement,'… the potential consequences of inaction—or overreaction—are too important to allow historical or ideological perspectives to stand in the way of progress."