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Senators turn up encryption heat on Apple, Facebook

Photo of Sen. Lindsey Graham in an elevator with smartphone in one hand, and other hand's finger raised
Sen. Lindsey Graham. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

The long-running fight over encryption looked set to enter a hot new phase Tuesday as representatives of Apple and Facebook took a grilling from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Facebook sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr saying it won't accede to government pressure to add "back doors" to its products.

Why it matters: Encryption is increasingly baked into tech devices and communications platforms. That enhances personal privacy — but law enforcement authorities have long maintained that it also harms their ability to apprehend criminals, terrorists and child abusers.

The big picture: The message to tech firms from senators of both parties, including committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, was blunt: Expect Congress to pass new encryption legislation mandating law enforcement access to devices and messages unless the industry provides its own methods.

What they're saying:

  • Graham: "You're gonna find a way to do this or we're gonna do it for you. We're not going to live in a world where a bunch of child abusers have a safe haven to practice their craft."
  • New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. testified that Apple's decision to begin encrypting iPhone content by default in 2014 "effectively upended centuries of American jurisprudence holding that nobody's property is beyond reach of a court order."
  • Erik Neuenschwander, Apple's manager for user privacy, told the senators that Apple has never held keys that let it access users' data, and it opposes efforts to require it to do so: "We've been unable to identify any way to create back doors that would only work for the good guys. They will be exploited by nefarious entities as well."
  • Jay Sullivan, product management director for privacy and integrity at Facebook Messenger, argued that if the U.S. mandates weakened encryption for U.S.-based services, customers will simply switch to services offered by companies abroad that will be less responsive to American authorities.

The other side: Most of the senators' questioning assumed that "fixing" encryption would benefit law enforcement, but Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) warned of unintended consequences like rich drug cartels buying ways to hack through back-door access.

Meanwhile, Facebook responded to a November letter from Barr, as well as officials of the U.S. Homeland Security department and the governments of the U.K. and Australia. The letter urged the company to design its systems to allow law enforcement authorities access to user data when investigating crimes.

  • The letter, from Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, and Stan Chudnovsky, head of Messenger, said: "Cybersecurity experts have repeatedly proven that when you weaken any part of an encrypted system, you weaken it for everyone, everywhere. The ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes."

Go deeper: The Justice Department just made the encryption debate harder to solve