FBI schools Silicon Valley on lobbying D.C.

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 29 Mar 2016

Major probe: The FBI is investigating the largest collection of stolen user names and passwords.

WASHINGTON: The FBI has just schooled Silicon Valley on lobbying Washington D.C. 

Late on March 28 the US Department of Justice dropped its legal fight to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters after finding another way to gain access to it. The crime fighters have also, though, come away with a longer-lasting victory: strong-arming the Obama Administration and lawmakers onto their side. 

The case is an object lesson for tech giants in the power of lobbying. The likes of Apple and Google have only recently started to devote more resources to K Street – in large part because they had wanted to avoid the partisan bickering that bogs down the nation's capital. The FBI, though, has pulled off a bit of a coup. 

It has long been pushing for legislation requiring tech companies to help law enforcement gain access to encrypted data. 

President Obama's line initially was that he sympathised with law enforcement but was also a privacy advocate so sided with Silicon Valley; his administration also did not want to make it easier for China and other countries to demand similar concessions. 

As a result, last October a disappointed FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the administration would not advocate for legislation that would give authorities so-called back-door access to data. The issue moved off the political agenda until last month when Apple cited broader privacy concerns for publicly rejecting a court order to help the agency. 

Obama's tone on the issue then changed to telling tech companies that they ought to find a way to assist law enforcement in a way that balances privacy and security. He also warned that Congress could pass legislation that was even tougher on Silicon Valley if tech firms did not act first. 

The FBI's tactics with Apple have also enticed lawmakers to resurrect the issue. One bill would give the courts authority to force tech companies to assist agencies like the FBI. Other representatives have formed bipartisan working groups to examine how to address both privacy concerns and law-enforcement needs. 

Neither effort is likely to disappear just because the legal case has been shelved. The FBI has managed to parlay a mass shooting within a year of federal elections into a series of victories for its cause. Silicon Valley can only wish for such suasion. — Reuters

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