Capitol Alert

California phone decryption bill defeated

A Sacramento woman uses her phone on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.
A Sacramento woman uses her phone on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014.

A national debate over smartphone encryption arrived in Sacramento on Tuesday as legislators defeated a bill penalizing companies that don’t work with courts to break into phones, siding with technology industry representatives who called the bill a dangerous affront to privacy.

The bill did not receive a vote, with members of the Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection worrying the measure would undermine data security and impose a logistically untenable requirement on California companies.

Disagreement over the balance between privacy and public safety exploded into public view in recent months when the FBI demanded that Apple unlock the phone of San Bernardino massacre perpetrator Syed Farook. Apple refused to comply and ultimately the FBI devised its own way in.

Assembly Bill 1681 would authorize $2,500 penalties against phone manufacturers and operating system providers if they do not obey court orders to decrypt phones. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, a former sheriff’s deputy who led an Internet crimes task force, called it “mind-boggling” that search warrants allow access to peoples’ houses but not necessarily to their phones.

“I’m not concerned about terrorism. The federal investigators deal with that,” Cooper said, but “local law enforcement deals with cases every day and they cannot access this information.”

Cellphones protected by full-disk encryption offer criminals a digital fortress in which to hide and operate freely, Cooper and his law enforcement backers argued. They said the technology has been a particular boon to human traffickers and child pornographers. Cooper relayed a story of a trafficked teenager who was given phones by the men controlling her and then declined to cooperate with law enforcement.

“She’d been brainwashed so badly she refused to give access to the smartphones,” Cooper said, but because of encryption, “a search warrant proved useless.”

Apple, Google and organizations representing the tech and wireless industries took the opposite view, arguing the bill would both erode personal privacy and imperil security by exposing information to hackers and other criminals. Other opponents included the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Bankers Association.

“Fundamentally weakening the security of smartphones in the way AB 1681 envisions not only doesn’t make us safer, it actually makes us less safe,” warned Internet Association lobbyist Robert Callahan, who called encryption “an incredibly important tool in today’s interconnected, Internet-enabled world to keep data secure.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert