Lawmakers and law enforcement groups in New York and California are pushing bills to enable investigators to unscramble data to obtain evidence in certain criminal cases, such as human trafficking and child pornography.
The bills aim to loosen the encryption tools that cell-phone companies have put in place to protect a smartphone user's privacy and prevent hacking. Supporters of the bill argue that law enforcement officials need access to data to help prove or solve criminal cases, while on the other hand privacy groups and technology groups are concerned that such legislation would put a user's personal information at risk.
Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a bill that requires companies to provide encrypted data when they are presented with a court order. Encryption helps protect data such as photos, messages, e-mails, contacts and call history on smartphones by scrambling the information so that is can't be seen unless someone unlocks the phone with a passcode.
Before Edward Snowden released information on the government accessing citizens' phone data in 2014, almost all smartphones had encryption protections that could be unscrambled by manufacturers. This means that if law enforcement took a search warrant and a cell phone to a manufacturer like Apple, they would be able to unlock the phone for you.
Now, cell phone manufacturers have encrypted the information and hard drives so that the data cannot be accessed as easily, and the data can only be accessed with the passcode set by the user. Under this stronger encryption, companies do not have the capability of unlocking protected material.
The bill would roll back the technology that encrypts these phones and would make it easier to unlock the device by manufacturers. Manufacturers would face a fine for each phone that is sold without the decryption feature.