US senator wants to ban government back doors in phones, PCs

Introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, the bill is designed to prohibit any government mandate that would require companies to build back doors into their products.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
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Sentator Ron Wyden of Oregon U.S. Senate Photographic Studio-Joy Holder

US Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill on the Senate floor that takes aim at government mandates requiring companies to build back doors into their mobile phones and PCs.

Dubbed the Secure Data Act, the bill, if enacted, would eliminate any government mandate that would force companies to intentionally build back doors into their products and allow for easy spying on devices. The bill, which was introduced Thursday, attempts to bridge the gap between privacy and data security, Wyden's office said in a statement Thursday.

"Strong computer security can rebuild consumer trust that has been shaken by years of misstatements by intelligence agencies about mass surveillance of Americans," Wyden said in a statement. "This bill sends a message to leaders of those agencies to stop recklessly pushing for new ways to vacuum up Americans' private information, and instead put that effort into rebuilding public trust."

Files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the US government's widespread ability to access company networks and devices to collect information.

Several technology companies have said that they were either unaware of the access the government had or did not allow for it unless otherwise required by law or warrant. Apple and Google, among others, have gone so far as to say that they will encrypt their products so no one -- including the government or the companies themselves -- will be able to access data.

The move was met with concern from the National Security Agency and supporters of certain programs that, they say, are aimed at foreign actors attempting to harm the US. In a visit to Silicon Valley last month, NSA director Adm. Michael Rogers said that he wants to work with technology companies to ensure both sides are being heard and they can come to some sort of common ground.

"It doesn't do us any good to villainize either side of this argument," Rogers said to about 100 professors, students and reporters at Stanford University. "Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about what is appropriate and not appropriate."

Wyden's bill does not come out of a vacuum. As he points out, some US government officials recently proposed policies that would require companies to "build back doors in the security features of their products." Wyden argues that the proposals are an invasion of privacy and could serve to undermine the security of users' devices that could be exploited by hackers and foreign governments. He also believes that the efforts could "thwart innovation" in the marketplace.

Wyden did not immediately respond to a request for comment.