Decryption laws for phones

Recently, bills have been introduced in both the California and New York State legislatures to force smartphone manufacturers and smartphone OS developers to incorporate backdoors into their devices so they can be decrypted against the owners’ wishes. Tech pundits have universally deplored these bills, but they seldom explain why. They take it as a given that anyone able to walk on two legs would understand why strong encryption is good and that any legislators who would write or vote for these bills must be profoundly stupid.

Don’t get me wrong. These bills are wrong-headed, but simply saying so—and insulting the people who can turn them into laws—isn’t a sound strategy for defeating them. The bills’ proponents will reference statements from the Director of the FBI to support their position. Who will you reference—BoingBoing? That isn’t going to win over legislators who are worried about terrorism.

If you want to argue against these bills, turn the security issue around. Point out that most smartphones are manufactured by companies headquartered outside the US and are subject to the laws and directives of their home countries. By legislating backdoors into the phones made by these companies, we would be putting the privacy of US citizens and the security of US companies into the hands of other nations.

Without strong encryption, foreign courts and foreign bureaucracies will have access to information on American citizens living on American soil. Is that what you want, Mr. or Ms. Legislator?