US lawmaker pushes back against FBI backdoor calls

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced a bill that would stymie almost any attempt by a government agency to force device manufacturers and app developers to install backdoors for surveillance purposes.

Wyden’s Secure Data Act, introduced on Thursday, follows calls by FBI chief James Comey for companies such as [company]Apple[/company] and [company]Google[/company] to give his agents a way through their encryption mechanisms, which have been tightened in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and episodes such as the celebrity iCloud hack.

Apple’s most recent move, for example, makes it impossible for the company to bypass the passcode on a user’s iPhone for the benefit of law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

Wyden’s bill gives an exemption to CALEA, the U.S. law that already compels carriers and router manufacturers to install “lawful intercept” capabilities, but beyond that it states:

… no agency may mandate that a manufacturer, developer, or seller of covered products design or alter the security functions in its product or service to allow the surveillance of any user of such product or service, or to allow the physical search of such product, by any agency.

“Covered products” means any hardware or software made available to the general public, so the bill would arguably not cover, say, flawed random number generators.

Wyden’s main impetus for this move, the NSA critic said in a statement, was that backdoors inherently weaken the security of the systems they’re installed in. He also reckons that backdoor mandates are a disincentive to innovation in “strong new data security technologies”, and harmful to trust in American products and services.

“Strong encryption and sound computer security is the best way to keep Americans’ data safe from hackers and foreign threats,” he said in the 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. And strong computer security can rebuild consumer trust that has been shaken by years of misstatements by intelligence agencies about mass surveillance of Americans.”

It’s interesting, if unsurprising, that Wyden’s bill gives a get-out to CALEA. His own statement cites the 2005 case of senior Greek politicians being illicitly tapped, using an [company]Ericsson[/company] lawful intercept feature, as an example of how backdoors can compromise a system’s security for the benefit of more people than they’re supposed to.

Earlier this year, security researchers also identified critical weaknesses in some companies’ lawful intercept products.