AT&T, Verizon call for federal action on encryption policy

AT&T takes added step of backing Apple in court brief

The nation's two largest telecom companies, AT&T and Verizon, have both taken strong positions supporting encryption, while AT&T took the added step Thursday of filing an amicus brief supporting Apple in a pending federal case.

The two carriers are directly affected by any outcome affecting encryption policy that could come from the nation's courts or Congress. Both are regularly required to honor court-ordered warrants to produce records of communications by suspects in criminal matters.

Both companies have taken the view that federal legislation, not a court order, is required to provide a uniform legal framework that affects the entire telecommunications community.

AT&T filed its friend-of-the-court brief with the magistrate in the U.S. District Court for the central district of California. The company's brief urges the court to vacate its Feb. 16 order requiring Apple to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino shootings on Dec. 2.

In addition, AT&T General Counsel David McAtee posted a blog entry that summarized the company's views.

He said AT&T is committed to both keeping citizens safe and protecting personal privacy. "The critical issue to AT&T is whether those interests will be balanced on an ad hoc basis by judges presiding over individual cases or by Congress providing a clear, uniform legal framework for all participants in the new digital economy," he said.

"Congress is the right body to decide this balance," McAtee added. He said the court's reliance on the All Writs Act to impose requirements on Apple is not a suitable substitute for a "comprehensive, uniform and fair" approach to be created by Congress.

"In this case...the government seeks more than what can be supported under the law as it is written today," McAtee added. "The solution is for Congress to pass new legislation that provides real clarity for citizens and companies alike."

He also said AT&T was "deeply saddened by the tragic events of San Bernardino" and urged the government to use "every lawful means to investigate those crimes, and that includes Apple's cooperation to the full extent permitted by law."

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam took a similar stance in a posting on LinkedIn on Monday.

"There may be legitimate reasons for preventing the destruction of data, such as the investigation of terrorism and serious crimes," McAdam wrote. "These conditions must be strictly defined by law, not arrived at haphazardly on an ad hoc or case-by-base basis, as in the Apple case."

He continued: "We oppose any solution that would place direct technical access in the hands of law enforcement; rather, it's vital that such tools remain in the hands of the provider, not government authorities." McAdam refused to take sides specifically on the Apple case, however.

A Verizon spokesman said Thursday that the company has no plans at this point to file an amicus brief in the Apple case.

However, many tech companies and associations are expected to file such briefs. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief on Wednesday in the Apple case, taking Apple's side. Microsoft and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are expected to file briefs supporting Apple, while local and federal law enforcement groups are expected to support the FBI's view.

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