In brief

  • A group of Senate Republicans has introduced a bill to force tech companies to provide access to users' encrypted data.
  • The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act is designed to prevent the internet from being used "for illicit purposes."
  • Privacy advocates warn that the bill would jeopardize the security of ordinary users.

Republican lawmakers in the United States are pushing a bill that would force tech companies to comply with “lawful access” to encrypted messaging. If the bill makes it through the legislature, it could effectively put an end to the privacy features found in messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram.

The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act was introduced on Tuesday by three Senators and calls for an end to the "warrant-proof" encryption that's prevented law enforcement from gaining access to smartphone data during criminal investigations.

The three senators, Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, have a history of opposing encryption on smartphones. They claim encryption “adds little to the security of the communications of the ordinary user, but it is a serious benefit for those who use the internet for illicit purposes.”

Andi Wilson Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute criticized the bill, saying such “requirements would undermine the security of ordinary people,” while terrorists and other criminals would simply migrate to new services. The timing—during a pandemic—was especially problematic, he added. 

End-to-end encryption is used across the world—from privacy advocates to those seeking to escape oppressive regimes, and companies such as Telegram have introduced increasingly sophisticated encryption and security to meet user demand.

In Russia, authorities threw the weight of the state behind banning Telegram, when founder Pavel Durov refused to comply with their demands for access to users’ encryption keys. Moscow admitted defeat last week, and the two-year-long ban on the messaging app was overturned

The US government also has a history of trying to ban encryption. But while advocates of scrapping encryption say it helps fight crime, forcing the creation of back doors will lead to a boom in a very different sort of criminality.  


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