Trump, GOP Sweep Gives Push To US Anti-Encryption Bill

Will a Trump presidency oversee a bill to outlaw secure messaging apps?

Illustration: Diana Quach
Nov 09, 2016 at 2:42 PM ET

Tuesday’s election result could give renewed vigor to a legal effort to ban American companies from creating strong, “end-to-end” encryption in the United States.

A draft version of such a bill was circulated earlier in April, but widely mocked by the information security industry. Called the Compliance With Court Orders Act of 2016, it sought to address the problem that law enforcement groups like the FBI could face when confronted by messaging platforms like the iPhone’s iMessage. That program, like other chat apps Signal and WhatsApp, gives users on each end of a conversation encryption keys, meaning that even the company that creates that program can’t decrypt its messages.

The bill, a joint effort from Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), respectively the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would make such apps illegal unless the manufacturer builds in a “backdoor” to break its own encryption. Experts, however, have long cautioned that process would by definition make them very vulnerable to hackers.

Despite a close race that drew some funding against him from Silicon Valley, Burr pulled out a reelection Tuesday, as did presidential candidate and former reality television star Donald Trump.

Though Trump has been extremely vague or downright mum on a vision for tech, and while representatives for Mr. Trump continued a longstanding practice of not responding to this reporter’s request for comment, he has in the past made numerous statements indicating support for such a bill. “We should be able to penetrate the internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS, and we can do that if we use our good people,” he said during the fifth GOP debate, in Las Vegas.

While Feinstein’s and Burr’s offices didn’t immediately return request for comment, a Feinstein staffer told Vocativ in September that her office was consulting outside sources to try to make the bill more palatable for the Senate.

“The crypto-backdoor issue, to no surprise to anybody, is certainly not going away,” Neema Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Vocativ. “I would anticipate Chairman Burr may still push that the bill he’s written that was released earlier in the year.”

That certainly doesn’t make it a done deal, she cautioned. “I suspect there will still be a push from some members of the Senate for backdoors, but the chorus of individuals who no longer think that’s a viable solution is growing, and I don’t suspect that those people are going to go away, either.”

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.), who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and who is one of the most outspoken privacy advocates in Congress, renewed his pledge to protect encryption in the U.S.

“I’m going to keep fighting for the values Oregonians cherish, including the principle that liberty and security aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said in a statement to Vocativ.“That means fighting government mandates to build backdoors in Americans’ personal devices. Encryption is about more security versus less security and I’ll do everything in my power to stop any bill or administration action to undermine this cornerstone of cybersecurity.”

Another technology and legislation expert on the hill, who requested to anonymity to speak more freely, said Trump’s erratic policy positions meant it was difficult to project what he would push for.

“We’re like everyone else in the world waiting to find out if Donald Trump actually means the things he says or does he just use bombastic rhetoric to keep his opponents guessing,” they said.