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Push for Encryption Law Falters despite Apple Case Spotlight | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A worker checks an iPhone in a repair store in New York, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Following a rampage that left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, key U.S. lawmakers promised to pursue a law demanding technology companies to grant law enforcement agencies a “back door” to encrypted communications and electronic devices, such as the iPhone used by one of the shooters.

However today, only few months after the incident, almost all of the support has vanished, and the push for legislation is gone, as stated by sources in congressional offices, the administration and the tech sector.

It seems that the draft legislation that Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein had circulated weeks ago will not be introduced this year, and even if it were, would stand no chance of advancing, the sources said.

One of the major problems is the lack of White House support for legislation in spite of a high-profile court showdown between the Justice Department and Apple Inc over the suspect iPhone, according to Congressional and Obama Administration officials and outside observers.

The Justice Department made unsuccessful pressure for years, trying to find a way to reveal suspects who “go dark,” or avoid being recognized through coded communications in locked devices.

For instance, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation took Apple to court in February in an attempt to open the iPhone in its investigation of the San Bernardino killings, the cause gained traction in Washington.

The dull support of the push for legislation shows the inflexibility of the debate over digital surveillance and encryption, which has been raging in one form or another since the 1990s.

Backed by civil liberties groups, Tech companies hold tight on their views that building law enforcement access into devices, especially mobile phones, would destabilize security for users and everyone involved, including the U.S. government itself.

The public seems to be in split on whether the government should have access to all digital data, according to polls, however law enforcement agencies stress on the vital need to monitor phone calls, text messages, and emails.

Many reached a mutual agreement that the Congress should decide the issue, rather than the courts, as a result of the legal battle between Apple and the FBI; however the consensus was fleeting.

The CIA and NSA were uncertain, fearing that any new law would break their own work through interfering with their encryption efforts, stated several current and former intelligence officials.

Meanwhile, tech companies have pushed encryption efforts in the wake of the Apple case. Nevertheless, the court showdown ended with a whimper when the FBI said it had found a way to get into the phone, and subsequently acknowledged privately it had found nothing important.

FBI’s Battle

Following San Bernardino attack, Burr insisted on the importance of passing encryption legislation, otherwise, the latter expected terrorist attacks to take place more frequently.

James Comey, FBI Director, told the Senate Intelligence Committee soon after that encryption was “overwhelmingly affecting” the investigation of illegal cases, such as murders, drug trafficking and child pornography.

A week later, the Justice Department persuaded a judge to issue a sweeping order demanding Apple write software to open an iPhone used by San Bernardino suspect Sayeed Farook, who died in a shootout with law enforcement.

Apple fought back, arguing, among other things, that only Congressional legislation could authorize what the court was demanding. Many saw the Justice Department’s move as a way to bring pressure on Congress to act.