California nixes smartphone decryption bill

California legislation seeking to coerce smartphone decryption defeated.
California legislation seeking to coerce smartphone decryption defeated.

California lawmakers Tuesday shot down Assembly Bill 1681 which sought to authorize a $2,500 penalty against phone manufacturers and operating system providers that leased or sold smartphones in the state for each instance in which they didn't obey a court order to decrypt a phone.

The ruling marked a victory for privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“As we have said many times, there is no way to build a "back door" into a smartphone that can only be used by one person,” Karen Gullo, EFF analyst, media relations specialist, told SCMagazine.com via emailed comments. “Once a vulnerability exists, any party that discovers it, including criminals, can exploit it to bypass device security and access our private data."

Gullo said the EFF will remain vigilant in opposing similar legislation introduced in the future that it believes will undermine the security of smartphones.

Jim Cooper (D-Calif.), a member of the State Assembly, introduced the bill in January 2016 in the midst of a heated legal battle between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over a court order compelling the tech company to unlock an encrypted cell phone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

At the time Cooper lauded the bill as a way to allow law enforcement to investigate and prosecute suspected criminals and criminal organizations involved in human trafficking and other serious crimes, according to a press release.

“Human traffickers are using encrypted cell phones to run and conceal their criminal activities,” Cooper said in the release. “Full-disk encrypted operating systems provide criminals an invaluable tool to prey on women, children, and threaten our freedoms while making the legal process of judicial court orders, useless.” 

The bill didn't even receive a vote as officials, according to the Sacramento Bee, were worried it would undermine data security and impose an unsustainable requirement on California companies.

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