Lindsey Graham

Senators to Big Tech Companies: Build A Back Door For Law Enforcement To Access Encrypted Messages, Or Else

The ongoing debate over Apple and Facebook’s decision to not build “backdoors” for law enforcement to obtain encrypted messages continued to rage during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Senators are warning tech giants Apple and Facebook that they will pass legislation to regulate encryption if the companies do not agree to build a way for law enforcement to access private encrypted messages as part of investigations.

A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday only escalated the battle between tech companies and the federal government over end-to-end encryption. Law enforcement officials, who have previously argued that encryption makes it easier for terrorists to plan attacks in private, are now arguing that the practices set in place by Apple, Facebook and Whatsapp (owned by Facebook) make it easier for child predators and other criminals to carry out illegal activities.

Privacy advocates have said that encrypted messaging protects users from hackers and authoritarian governments looking to track their online activity. Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s manager of user privacy, testified to lawmakers on Tuesday that it is virtually impossible to build a “backdoor” for law enforcement without weakening the strength of encryption technology.

“At this time, we've been unable to identify any way to create a backdoor that would work only for the good guys," Neuenschwander said, according to CNET. "In fact, our experience is the opposite. When we have weaknesses in our system, they're exploited by nefarious entities as well."

Legislators were particularly perturbed with a letter from Facebook and Whatsapp sent to Attorney General William Barr and other law enforcement leaders around the world on Monday. In the letter, Facebook’s Jay Sullivan, who oversees privacy integrity at the company, said that it would not weaken encryption on Whatsapp because “doing so would undermine the privacy and security everywhere and leave them vulnerable to hackers, criminals and repressive regimes.”

At an event on Tuesday afternoon, Barr said that dealing with problems caused by encryption is one of the Justice Department’s “highest priorities” and that he was not happy with Facebook’s response. Barr argued that tech companies are selling the belief that “no matter what you do, you’re completely impervious to government surveillance.”

“Do we want to live in a society like that?” Barr said, according to The New York Times. “I don’t think we do.”

After hearing from law enforcement and company representatives at the Senate hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that tech companies were either going to figure out a way to give authorities access to encrypted messages or Congress will take action to ensure it happens.

"My advice to you is to get on with it," Graham said. "This time next year, if you haven't found a way that you can live with it, we will impose our will on you."

Democrats echoed Graham’s message, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He said that Facebook and Apple were distancing themselves from responsibility for the crimes that are planned and carried out within their messaging apps.

“That will end, because the American people are losing patience," Blumenthal said, according to CNET. "I hope you take that message back. That kind of immunity will be short-lived if big tech isn't able to do better."

There are no current bills on the table concerning encryption, but Congress could follow in the footsteps of Australia’s legislature, which passed the world’s first encryption law in December 2018.

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