The Senate Intelligence Committee is nearing the completion of a bill that applies penalties to tech companies that resist court ordered requests to assist the government unlocking hardware that uses encryption.
Reuters reports that Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Char Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are nearing completion of draft legislation that could find companies facing contempt of court charges and penalties.
Rumours of the proposed legislation came to light in February, with Burr’s camp thought to be planning the proposal at the time. The timetable may alter, but today’s report claims that Burr and Feinstein will share the bill with interested parties next week before being formally introduced in the Senate.
Unlike previous reports, news agency Reuters said the legislation would apply civil penalties to companies that resist or refuse proper government decryption requests, not criminalisation.
The bill comes amid debate over the balance between encryption technologies and access to critical data. Currently, Apple is resisting an order from a federal magistrate judge requiring assistance to unlock an iPhone 5c used in the San Bernadino attack. In the request, the FBI has asked apple to create, sign and deploy a flawed version of iOS that would allow a brute force attack on the passcode-locked iPhone.
Tech companies as well as civil rights groups have supported Apple’s decision to protect its encryption systems, filing briefs to the courts detailing the pitfalls of forcing assistance. A win for the DOJ would set a precedent for law enforcement requests regarding encrypted devices, and could also expose millions of iOS device owners to possible threats.
The government says that Apple’s workaround would only be used in the San Bernadino case, and has the backing of several law enforcement groups.