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Tech companies clash with US lawmakers over access to encrypted devices

Tech companies clashed with federal lawmakers on Dec. 10 as bipartisan calls to improve law enforcement's access to encrypted devices intensified.

In the wake of a series of high profile criminal incidents involving encrypted devices, lawmakers from both major political parties are calling on tech companies to develop a backdoor to allow law enforcement to access information on the devices of suspected criminals. However, industry executives say there is no way to weaken encryption without also making data more vulnerable to criminal hacking.

"We do not know of a way to deploy encryption that provides access only for the good guys without making it easier for the bad guys to break in," said Erik Neuenschwander, manager of user privacy for Apple Inc., during a U.S. Senate hearing on the topic.

Similarly, Facebook Inc.'s Jay Sullivan, who directs product management for privacy and integrity in the company's Messenger service, told lawmakers that the creation of such a backdoor for law enforcement is not feasible.

"We oppose intentionally weakening the security of encrypted systems to create a 'backdoor' because doing so would undermine the privacy and security of our users everywhere and would leave billions of people vulnerable to hackers or other unauthorized access," he said in prepared testimony. "You cannot build a backdoor for one person and not expect others to try to open it."

Despite these assertions, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said if tech companies are unable to find a way to resolve access issues for law enforcement, Congress would compel them to act.

"You're going to find a way to do this, or we're going to do it for you," he said. "This time next year, if we haven't found a way that you can live with it, we will impose our will on you."

Graham's Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is determined to see if there is a way that phones can be unlocked when major crimes have been committed.

One member of the law enforcement community who testified, Cyrus Vance, Jr., district attorney for New York County in New York state, said a middle ground can be struck in the smartphone encryption debate.yea

"The right balance between privacy and public safety can be achieved by (1) requiring a court-ordered search warrant, and (2) limiting the information sought to data at rest (for example, the photos and messages that are already on your phone)," he wrote in prepared testimony.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is also involved in the issue. In October, he signed on to a letter encouraging Facebook not to proceed with a plan to implement end-to-end encryption across messaging services without ensuring user safety and including a way for communications content to be lawfully accessed.

Facebook responded to the letter by saying that the backdoor access requested would be "a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes."

Facebook's Sullivan testified Dec. 10 that American companies need to lead on encryption.

"Until recently, the internet almost everywhere has been defined by American platforms with strong values of free expression," he said. "There is no guarantee that these values will win out."