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The Daily Tar Heel
View from the Hill

Burr drafts bill on privacy after Apple controversy, documents leaked

Two senators, Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Dianne Feinstein, D-C.A., drafted a bill that aims to force companies like Apple into unlocking phone data for government access last week.

The draft was leaked online where it reignited debate over the conflict between privacy and security that followed a deadly shooting in San Bernardino, C.A. at the end of 2015. 

Apple v The FBI

The December shooting in San Bernardino left 14 dead, as well as Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters. His iPhone 5c was recovered at the scene. 

When the FBI asked Apple to unlock the phone, pursuing possible information and connections Farook might have had, company CEO Tim Cook cited privacy reasons when he declined to fully comply.

Cook, in an open letter, said to unlock the phone would require the company to hack its own security measures. It would require them to build a “backdoor” to bypass the security software, he said, which would create a dangerous opportunity for hackers to follow suit.

“In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable,” he said.

In a court filing that asked Apple to unlock the phone, Justice Department attorneys wrote, “Apple’s current refusal to comply with the Court’s Order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

Adam Saffer, who worked in the PR field before joining the UNC School of Media and Journalism as a professor, said while Apple’s stance did not seem purely based in public image, it still made waves.

“I think that they’re getting some PR benefit,” he said, “I think that for some people, they want to know that their data is going to be encrypted and secured, but at the same time there are people who are trying to politicize it and that’s detrimental to Apple.”

The issue became moot when last month the FBI withdrew its case, having hacked the phone on its own. 

The Bill’s Draft

The not-yet proposed bill, titled “Compliance with court orders act of 2016,” is the aftermath of this unsettled dispute.

The goal of the draft reads, “To require the provision of data in an intelligible format to a government pursuant to a court order, and for other purposes.”

The bill is vague in specifics; it leaves creative control entirely up to the technology companies about how they secure data and do their encryption. But it is clear in purpose.

Upon a court order, a company would have to comply in supplying access of encrypted data. The government would be liable for compensating the company for the costs of doing so.

The All Writs Act, originally passed as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, currently allow courts to issue all orders and warrants necessary in their jurisdiction that are agreeable with principles of the law. 

The act has been used in the past as grounds to compel phone records to be shared. Its modern day interpretation will play an important role in settling precedent for Sen. Burr and Sen. Feinstein's pursuit their bill.

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