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'Secure Data Act' would block US from demanding backdoors in Apple's iPhone

A National Security Agency data center.

A new bill being proposed in U.S. Congress would theoretically ban any attempt at imposing legal backdoors into devices like Apple's iPhone.

The Secure Data Act would block courts and federal agencies from issuing orders to "compel a manufacturer, developer, or seller of covered products to design or alter the security functions in its product or service to allow the surveillance of any user of such product or service, or to allow the physical search of such product, by an agency."

Backing the legislation are three Democrats — Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Jerry Nadler, and Ted Lieu — as well as three Republicans, Thomas Massie, Ted Poe, and Matt Gaetz.

Wiretaps would still be allowed, as defined by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, but even then fully encrypted messaging platforms like iMessage and Signal would be left intact.

Some U.S. government officials, like FBI director Christopher Wray, have repeatedly called for a way to bypass the encryption on devices and messaging platforms when a warrant or national security letter is in hand. The argument is that communication is increasingly "going dark" for law enforcement and spy agencies, giving terrorists and other criminals a way to conspire out of sight.

Activist groups, Apple, and many other tech companies have argued that the government doesn't have an inherent right to intercept all communications, and/or that there's no such thing as a safe backdoor. Apple especially has said that any deliberate vulnerability would likely be discovered and exploited by malicious entities, whether criminal hackers or governments running mass surveillance.

The matter came to the forefront in a battle with the FBI and U.S. Justice Department over the iPhone 5c of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The government insisted that Apple write software to allow access, but Apple refused, claiming it couldn't be compelled to do so and would have to fundamentally weaken iOS regardless.

The court dispute ended suddenly when the government revealed it had managed to break into Farook's phone with third-party help. Recently, a report from the Office of the Inspector General concluded that the FBI hadn't exhausted all its options before taking legal action against Apple.

The Secure Data Act could have little impact on searches conducted via physical access. Apple's upcoming iOS 11.4 update, however, may shorten the timeframe in which such searches will work.