Senate bill will impose fines on tech companies that refuse to unlock smartphones

The bipartisan bill will force tech firms to help law enforcement and federal agencies bypass encryption -- or face fines.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
(Image: file photo)

Two leading senators have released a draft bill that would impose penalties for refusing to comply with a court order.

Introduced by Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the bill requires that companies "must provide in a timely manner responsive, intelligible information or data, or appropriate technical assistance to obtain such information."

In other words, tech companies must comply with court orders to bypass the security of devices or "backdoor" the encryption, or face civil fines, similar to contempt of court charges.

But the bill ruled out using criminal sanctions.

Yahoo famously buckled under the threat of daily fines of $250,000 per day if it did not "join" the PRISM surveillance program, which was later disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The fine would have doubled each month; by the fifth month, the company would have been bankrupt.

The Burr-Feinstein bill echoes similar draft proposals announced at the state level in California and New York, both of which would prohibit the sale of encrypted devices that can't be opened by law enforcement.

But the bill faces an uphill battle, given the political explosion in legislation hitting state and national legislatures.

Burr and Feinstein have drawn a bipartisan consensus; members on both sides of the aisle are struggling to grasp the implications and ramifications of the Justice Dept.'s recent lawsuit against Apple.

In February, the FBI brought a case against Apple to compel it to help its agents break into the iPhone of one of the shooters, Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and injured dozens in the shooting attack on December 2.

Apple refused to help the feds "backdoor" its own product, arguing that it can't crack the encryption, and lodged a formal appeal.

The case was later dropped after an "outside party" found a way to break into the shooter's iPhone 5C.

You can read the full text of the discussion draft below.

This story has been updated since it was first published on March 10.

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