Get the best of Monitor journalism in your inbox.

Is an encrypted smart phone a secure device – or threat to nation's safety?

Two representatives introduced a bill Wednesday to stop states from creating a patchwork of bans on encrypted devices, a sign that the House of Representatives is interested in legislation that protects consumer privacy. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Going Dark: Encryption, Technology, and the Balance Between Public Safety and Privacy" July 8, 2015. Two representatives introduced a bill Wednesday to stop the states from creating bans on fully encrypted devices.

When Apple releases its iPhone 2000z at some unknown future date, consumers will not need to worry if they are buying it in New York or New Jersey, if a bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday passes.

Data encryption is among the biggest debates on privacy and cybersecurity, but the new bill signals that Congress is viewing the issue as a conflict between national security and individual rights, Lance Whitney reported for CNET.

The bill, the Encrypt Act of 2016, responds to action in New York and California, where the states are creating requirements for tech companies to leave a so-called "back door" to allow the government to hack into fully encrypted devices, Dustin Volz reported for Reuters. 

"We need to keep free market and trade between the several states robust, not promote a false sense of security and require things like backdoors and golden keys that can be exploited by hackers," said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of Texas, who introduced the bill, in a press release. 

Apple, Android, and other companies began fully encrypting smart phones and other devices in 2014, partly to shake the public's suspicion that they would sell consumer data to the US government when asked. Currently, even the smart phone's creators cannot access its data once the consumer encrypts it. 

"Having 50 states with 50 different encryption back doors standards or bans is a recipe for disaster for American privacy and competitiveness," Rep. Ted Lieu (D) of California, who also introduced the bill, told CNET. 

Although he generally advocates for the right of states to handle their own problems internally, Mr. Farenthold has said this a security issue requiring a unified, national approach. 

Although it does not relate directly to the bill they introduced Wednesday, both Farenthold and Lieu are advocates of privacy in the tech world. They oppose the idea of the government requiring any so-called "back doors" to encrypted devices on the grounds that such openings could easily be exploited by hackers.

The bill does not end the debate on data encryption and its role in cybersecurity and counter-terrorism efforts, but it shows a possible divide between a pro-privacy House of Representatives and a more security-conscious Senate.

"Put in new standards so we can deal with the encryption where terrorists are hiding their communications from our surveillance, even under court order," Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said on the Senate floor, The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

Governments, not only in the United States but also in Europe, have increased pressure on tech companies in recent months to help stop Islamic State terrorists. The issue of encryption is particularly potent, as FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Tuesday that encryption was stopping his investigators from accessing a cell phone from one of the San Bernadino shooters, Reuters reported. 

"In the last 10 days, we’ve had almost 500 people killed as a direct result of terrorism. At some point, this administration has to have a commitment to defeat terrorism, and it’s going to start with better intelligence, as we have seen from the Paris attacks," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina, according to The Christian Science Monitor. "Encryption has been a problem, will continue to be a problem, and that problem will grow."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.