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Ron Wyden introduces bill to ban FBI 'backdoors' in tech products

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Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is trying to proactively block FBI head James Comey's request for new rules that make tapping into devices easier. The Secure Data Act would ban agencies from making manufacturers alter their products to allow easier surveillance or search, something Comey has said is necessary as encryption becomes more common and more sophisticated. "Strong encryption and sound computer security is the best way to keep Americans' data safe from hackers and foreign threats," said Wyden in a statement. "It is the best way to protect our constitutional rights at a time when a person's whole life can often be found on his or her smartphone."

The FBI says it's going to start "going dark" because of encryption

In a speech from mid-October, Comey warned that the FBI was in danger of "going dark," or being technically unable to access evidence on newly encrypted phones and computers. "The more we as a society rely on these devices, the more important they are to law enforcement and public safety officials," he said. Not long before, Apple and Google had announced that they would start encrypting iOS and Android user data by default, a decision that didn't sit well with Comey. In response, he proposed an update to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires telecommunications companies to provide wiretap access for targeted surveillance. It's a fight the government has picked before and lost (with the Crypto Wars), and the FBI didn't seem likely to do much better this time around. But Wyden is hoping to shut the proposal down before it manages to get off the ground.

Where Comey sees a targeted exception, Wyden and others see a backdoor in device security — a vulnerability that would defeat the purpose of user encryption and could be coopted by other hackers. Comey protested that the NSA leaks have given Americans an unrealistic idea of how far government surveillance powers reach, but Wyden says his bill is a way to rebuild trust in American technology companies, something that's been undeniably shaken by the information Edward Snowden leaked over the past year. The FBI declined to comment on the bill, but a spokesperson referred us to a portion of Comey's statement earlier this year: "There is a misconception that building a lawful intercept solution into a system requires a so-called 'back door,' one that foreign adversaries and hackers may try to exploit. But that isn't true. We aren't seeking a back-door approach. We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law."

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) took up the issue of government encryption rules earlier this year. She passed an amendment to the annual defense funding bill that bans requiring companies to install security vulnerabilities, a move that was lauded by civil liberties groups.

Update December 5th, 9:20am ET: Added FBI referral to Comey speech.