States Join the Encryption Battle, Push for Legislation at the State Level

The encryption battle continues! And now, it’s making it’s way to state legislatures.

We’ve written before about the power that individual US states have, and how this power can be used to enact privacy legislation. In many cases this is a positive, when used to pass safeguards that haven’t been passed at the national level. Recently, however, two states have been in the news for something less positive – backdoor encryption.

New York state announced a few weeks ago that it was seeking legislation at the state level that would force phone makers to add backdoors into encrypted communications. And last week, California announced it’s following suit. These bills, unsurprisingly, are being pushed by law enforcement officials claiming that backdoors aid in criminal investigations.

As described by Yahoo, the bill put forth by New York would “force manufacturers or operating system providers to decrypt and unlock smartphones for law enforcement and other authorities, creating a backdoor to surpass the encryption.” If manufacturers don’t comply, they’d face a $2,500/device fine. The bill is currently in committee at the New York State Assembly and has a long way to go. It’s unclear how much support the bill has, but it’s existence is concerning nonetheless.

Also concerning is that California followed New York’s example this week, when Assemblyman Jim Cooper proposed a very similar bill to require smartphone makers to build backdoors into devices. The California bill would also impose a $2,500 fine for manufacturers who don’t comply. The California bill is strongly supported by the DA, who were present during a press conference about the legislation.

As reported in the Verge, the National District Attorneys Association hasn’t hidden its intention to mobilize local offices in the fight against encryption. They have previously announced they want to “partner” with states to get bills requiring encryption backdoors put into place.

Although these bills still have a long way to go, they further the seemingly-endless debate on encryption backdoors that’s been going on in the United States and around the world. If these bills were to pass, they would set a dangerous precedent for other states to follow. We hope they will not wind up moving forward, and will be watching to see what happens next.

Update – March 28, 2016

As reported by USA Today, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress is “pushing legislation” that would stop states from being able to enact their own state-level laws to require backdoors into encrypted devices.