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Lindsey Graham introduced a bill giving police a way to unlock phones, decrypt messages

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (front), arrives at a news conference to speak about the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Andrew Harnik/AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham is among a group of Republican lawmakers proposing a law that would require tech manufacturers to aid law enforcement trying to break in to criminal suspects' personal communications.

Under the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, manufacturers would have to add a "back door" for police investigating crimes. 

Debate around the bill, introduced June 23, sets the argument for giving law enforcement officers better access to criminals' communications against the rights of individuals to protect their information from bad actors. 

Tech giants including Apple Inc. say the bill would force them to create devices with weaker protections. Today, even the companies themselves can not break into the personal devices they manufacture. 

Encryption has made the internet a more secure place to do business and store information. 

"The internet and the technology market today is as it is precisely because encryption enables us to operate online securely," Matt Tait, a cybersecurity fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School Of Public Affairs, said during Congressional testimony late last year.

But that same level of security is available to criminals, and police don't have the capability to unlock smartphones running the newest technologies from Apple and Google even with the aid of a court order. 

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Graham and his Republican co-sponsors, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., present their bill as a "balanced solution." It would require tech companies like Apple and Google to aid law enforcement in unlocking the devices. Government entities would reimburse the manufacturers up to $300 for the assist.

“After law enforcement obtains the necessary court authorizations, they should be able to retrieve information to assist in their investigations," Graham said in a statement when announcing the bill. "Our legislation respects and protects the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans. It also puts the terrorists and criminals on notice that they will no longer be able to hide behind technology to cover their tracks."

Ultimately, companies could be held in contempt of court under the proposed law if they don't oblige.

It is just the latest iteration of legislation meant to give police the keys to encrypted devices and messaging. Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is also a sponsor on a bill introduced in March called the EARN IT Act that targeted child abusers' use of encrypted technologies. Unlike the legislation introduced in late June, the EARN IT Act has bipartisan support.

Opponents say the bill is a bigger invasion of privacy than the Republican senators are letting on. A researcher at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School called the bill a "full-frontal nuclear assault on encryption," because it requires manufacturers to build in back doors for law enforcement.

"Millions of ordinary people could have their privacy violated, and the actual criminals could simply use one of the many other encryption tools not provided by one of the U.S. providers that would be covered by this misguided bill," the Open Technology Institute at New America, a liberal think tank, wrote in a statement.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, is a reporter covering health care and technology for The Post and Courier's business desk. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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