French Law Would Fine Apple Over iPhone Encryption

March 4, 2016, 5:52 PM UTC
Apple Encryption Protests
Protesters carry placards outside an Apple store Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Boston. Demonstrators are expected to gather in a number of cities Tuesday to protest the FBI obtaining a court order that requires Apple to make it easier to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by a gunman in December's shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Photograph by Steven Senne — AP

An amendment to a French penal reform bill could have implications for technology companies like Apple—if the amendment survives.

Right-leaning members of France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, were able to amend the penal reform bill to include a law that would fine smartphone makers up to $385,000 and imprison their executives for as many as five years, if they don’t provide access to data in connection with terrorism investigations. The full bill, which includes several other components, including sentencing guidelines for terrorists, will be voted on by the National Assembly on March 8. If passed, it would then need to pass the Senate and signed into law by French President Francois Hollande.

The Agence-France Presse earlier reported on the bill.

The move is likely one that will catch the ire of left-leaning politicians in France that have sought not to violate individual privacy as the country negotiates how to address terrorism across its country, following the deadly Paris attacks in November.

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Since then, the French government has been debating its terrorism and criminal penal regulations and trying to determine how far they should go. In January, National Assembly members won approval for an amendment that would have forced technology companies to build encryption backdoors into their hardware and software. The idea, according to supporters, would be to make it easier to access phones across the country and snoop at what possible attackers may be saying before they act. Soon after, the National Assembly spiked the proposal for fear of violating individual privacy.

The latest proposal comes in the wake of Apple’s (AAPL) recent decision to not comply with an FBI request and court order to obtain access to the iPhone owned by San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook. Apple has argued that helping the government obtain access to the iPhone would set a “dangerous precedent,” and has formally appealed a magistrate judge’s order in the matter. Several organizations have lined up behind Apple, including Google and Microsoft, saying that the company should not be forced to comply with the request. Samsung has separately said that it, too, supports data encryption on its smartphones.

Law enforcement agencies and many lawmakers, however, have argued that Apple’s decision to disobey the magistrate judge’s order sets its own dangerous precedent. They argue that not being able to access encrypted communication between suspected terrorists and criminals could make the world less safe and give bad actors a better opportunity to commit their intended crimes. Referring to their inability to access encrypted communications, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department have called the issue “going dark.”

France Rejects ‘Backdoors’ Law to Defeat Encryption

“The going-dark problem is a very real threat to law enforcement’s mission to protect public safety and ensure that criminals are caught and held accountable,’’ U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the RSA cybersecurity conference earlier this week. ”We owe it to the victims and to the public, whose safety we must protect, to ensure we have done everything under the law to fully investigate terrorist attacks and criminal activity on American soil.’’

The new French amendment is similarly concerned about the “going-dark” problem. However, it singles out smartphone makers and even cell phone carriers, but doesn’t cite software developers. Indeed, a wide range of messaging applications, including Facebook (FB)-owned WhatsApp and startup Telegram, come with end-to-end encryption. In the event a company provided the government a backdoor to hardware, in other words, criminals and terrorists could technically use those apps to communicate in the dark. All the while, the companies offering those platforms seemingly wouldn’t be subject to France’s law.

For more on France and encryption, watch:

At this point, though, there appears to be little chance of Apple being fined or Tim Cook going to jail in France. The latest move is simply an amendment to a bill that will be voted on next week. From there, it’s highly unlikely, given the political control left-leaning politicians have in France, that it would make its way to the President’s desk.

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