New York prosecutor seeks U.S. law to weaken smartphone encryption

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. on Wednesday called for federal legislation requiring tech companies such as Google and Apple to design smartphone operating systems so law enforcement can unlock data stored on them.

The new Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam -

He urged Congress to pass a law mandating that information stored on phones built or sold in the United States incorporate weaker encryption standards than currently used so data are accessible to investigators.

Silicon Valley companies have moved to make strong encryption the default setting on their devices. Vance in a white paper criticized that trend, highlighting in particular encryption-favoring decisions by Apple and Google last year that he claimed have had a “severe” impact on public safety.

The proposal wades into an escalating debate over whether secure encryption, viewed by many in the technology world as vital to the integrity of the Internet, is a barrier to U.S. intelligence operations and criminal investigations.

The dispute has surged in the wake of last week’s Paris attacks.

Law enforcement claims new models of Apple iPhones and phones based on Google’s Android operating system often store data vital to investigations but, due to tight encryption standards, cannot be accessed even with a search warrant.

Vance said a new federal law to allow access for law enforcement “would not require new technology or costly adjustments.”

“It would require, simply, that designers and makers of operating systems not design or build them to be impregnable to lawful governmental searches,” he said.

The proposal does not apply to encrypted conversations sent between devices.

Privacy groups, technology companies and security researchers generally oppose any so-called “backdoors” for law enforcement like the one suggested by Vance, warning that any built-in security weaknesses could also expose information to foreign nation states and other bad actors. Crippling security technologies could also hurt U.S. competitiveness, they argue.

Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, called Vanbce’s proposal “just an extension of the same rhetoric that we’ve heard.”

The White House backed down last month from efforts to pursue encryption backdoor legislation on communications between phones. Administration officials have given no indication that their approach has changed.

A number of prominent lawmakers, including Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have argued the Paris attacks show that concerns about encryption are legitimate. But even some supporters of backdoors concede that new legislation is unlikely to gain traction even amid heightened security fears.

Reporting by Dustin Volz. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Cynthia Osterman