CA Lawmaker Says Human Trafficking is a Good Reason to Make Your Smartphone Less Secure

January is Human Trafficking Awareness month, and here in San Francisco, state and local agencies have been busy hosting press conferences, summits, and training sessions for staff in the hospitality industry. Yesterday, at an event in the Tenderloin, the city also officially launched its “No Traffick Ahead” PSA campaign — an initiative between 60 organizations from eight Bay Area counties — which will plaster hundreds of anti-trafficking ads in and on Muni buses, bus shelters, and billboards.

Locally, the Super Bowl has certainly intensified the city’s anti-trafficking crackdown; after all, the big game is commonly, if inaccurately, dubbed the biggest trafficking event in the U.S. But a recent statewide proposal from California Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) takes the trafficking crusade to a whole new level. Cooper’s AB 1681, introduced Wednesday, frames trafficking as a legitimate reason to access private data on smartphones.

[jump] Cooper’s bill would require a smartphone “that is manufactured on or after January 1, 2017, and sold in California, to be capable of being decrypted and unlocked by its manufacturer or its operating system provider.”

In other words, if this bill passes, all smartphones sold in California would include mandatory back doors for law enforcement. If phones fail to meet that requirement, manufacturers would be fined $2,500 for each device sold or leased.

At a press conference announcing his bill, Cooper shrugged off privacy concerns. “It’s not the bogeyman, it’s not the NSA, it’s not Edward Snowden,” he said, twice. He added that “99 percent” of Californians will never have their phone searched, and that any third-party access requires a judge’s order.

He also called upon the tech industry to “put people over profits” by manufacturing phones with weak encryption.

As The Verge notes, Cooper’s proposal is similar to one recently reintroduced by New York Assemblyman Matthew Titone (D-Staten Island). Rather than offer trafficking as the rationale, however, that bill points to counterterrorism. Both bills were written with support from their respective district attorneys.

In an interview with Ars Technica, Cooper again dismissed privacy concerns. “For the industry to say it’s privacy, it really doesn’t hold any water. We’re going after human traffickers and people who are doing bad and evil things. Human trafficking trumps privacy, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

Not surprisingly, privacy advocates disagree.

Andrew Crocker of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Ars Technica that Cooper’s bill was “infeasible from a technical perspective,” made smartphones more vulnerable to unauthorized users, and, more importantly, was potentially unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

A national commission to study law enforcement’s access to encrypted communications is on the drawing board, but leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including California senator (and former S.F. mayor) Dianne Feinstein, announced they would introduce legislation mandating that smartphone manufacturers be able to access their devices if requested to do so.

Cooper's bill still has a long ways to go before it's potentially signed into law, but expect to see a lot more pushback from privacy and cyber security watchdogs in the coming weeks.


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