Skip to main content

District attorney offices are bringing the encryption war directly to the states

District attorney offices are bringing the encryption war directly to the states

Share this story

Two major district attorneys are trying to get inside your smartphone. To do so, they're enlisting the help of assemblymen in California and New York. California Assemblyman Jim Cooper proposed a bill earlier this week that would require all smartphone makers to build back doors into their devices for law enforcement. This bill follows the exact format of one proposed by New York Assemblyman Matthew Titone in June 2015 and reintroduced a couple weeks ago. Cooper’s bill, exactly like Titone’s, says any manufacturer who isn’t able to decrypt and unlock its products when presented with a search warrant will be fined $2,500 for each device sold or leased.

Both bills still have a long way to go before becoming law. Neither is currently on the docket, and discussion is only now picking up around them. The New York bill is still accepting comments on the legislation online, so it may change significantly before it reaches the statehouse. The legislation shows just how seriously law enforcement is about breaking down built-in encryption, and it’s no coincidence the separate bills share the exact same language.

Law enforcement is serious about breaking encryption

The Sacramento Country district attorney’s office coordinated with Cooper on his bill, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office devised Titone’s. Cooper didn't hide his local DA's support; the office was present during a press conference announcing the legislation. Titone, on the other hand, didn't as outwardly admit to carrying the bill for the Manhattan DA. However, when The Verge reached out to his office last week to discuss the legislation, his chief of staff directed us to the DA and said they were more familiar with the "technicalities" of the bill. The DA confirmed with The Verge that the bill was proposed in April 2015 by all 62 district attorneys in the state of New York while seeking the assistance of their legislators. Titone merely brought it to the capitol.

The National District Attorney's Association hasn't hidden its intention to mobilize its local offices. The association, along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, announced in November that they planned to partner with state legislators to enact mandatory smartphone decryption bills around the country. The group wrote in a letter that it looked "forward to working with lawmakers to strengthen our current laws, and ensure they are representative of today’s technology and the challenge public safety officials face in preventing crime and safeguarding their communities."

It’s no coincidence the separate bills share the exact same language

Cooper says his bill will be used to hunt down human traffickers, but its introduction comes amid a convoluted debate over terrorism that’s included a lot of misinformation. The national encryption debate revved up and tapered off in the spring of 2015, for instance, but roared back to life in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks this past year. At the time, international officials blamed intelligence failures on the perpetrators’ abilities to talk in secret on encrypted chat apps. It was later discovered that they used unencrypted SMS messaging. Even still, the debate has carried over into the new year.

Just this week, news broke that a soon-to-be-introduced national bill would establish a national commission to further study and discuss law enforcement’s access to encrypted communications. Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein, followed up, however, and said this committee would move too slowly. Instead, they plan to introduce legislation that would make it mandatory for smartphone manufacturers to be able to gain access to their customers' devices if passed.

Correction: Titone first introduced his bill in June 2015, not June 2014 as initially stated.