A new anti-terrorism law passed in China Sunday will require tech firms to help the government access sensitive user data. The law comes on the heels of a broadly worded national security law passed in July that mandated that the country’s Internet infrastructure be "secure and controllable."
The new law also restricts press freedom in China, curtailing the right of journalists to report on terror attacks or show "cruel or inhuman" scenes, Reuters reported. It also puts new restrictions on social media use by Chinese citizens, who already face state censorship and filtering when they post about controversial issues or criticize the government.
China's anti-terror laws have attracted criticism from businesses, human rights groups and U.S. President Barack Obama, who told Reuters in March that "we've made very clear to them that this is something they're going to have to change if they expect to do business with the United States."
Li Shouwei, a government spokesman, told Reuters that companies won't have to fear any backdoors -- entryways that bypass a traditional security mechanism -- into their products and services.
A draft of the legislation that the International Association of Privacy Professionals analyzed in March raised concerns that China's new law would require Internet service providers and telecommunications providers to install government-accessible backdoors and provide the means to decrypt any data stored on their servers.
The final version of the law published by state media, however, does not require tech companies to hand over encryption keys. Instead, it mandates that firms help the government with decryption if authorities ask for it, according to Reuters.
Shouwei also told Reuters that China was "simply doing what other major nations already do in asking technology firms to help fight terror." He cited Western nations' actions as justification, Reuters reported.
Although US leaders have condemned China's laws, they are engaging in the same rhetoric of national security stateside, suggesting that technology companies find a magical way to create secure backdoors through a Manhattan-like project despite technologists and experts resolutely telling politicians that to do so is to mandate insecurity.
The national security justification is exactly what the Federal Bureau of Investigation, congressmen and presidential candidates have used when calling for Silicon Valley to give law enforcement access to encrypted user data in the wake of attacks on Paris and San Bernadino, California.
"Those kinds of restrictive practices I think would, ironically, hurt the Chinese economy over the long term," Obama said in March, "because I don't think there's any U.S. or European firm, any international firm, that could credibly get away with that wholesale turning over of data, personal data, over to a government."
In October, the Obama administration decided it would not seek access to encrypted data from U.S. tech companies.
As we debate strong encryption in 2016, security and liberty must win. That won't happen if the men and women who want to be leaders of the free world keep waffling on key technology policy issues of the presidential campaign or outright suggesting that the U.S. do what China just did.
If our elected leaders -- or presidential candidates -- don't start defending the right of the people to be secure in their persons and papers in the digital age, however, China's action shows that authoritarian governments can and clearly will use irresponsible rhetoric to justify restrictions on the speech, security and privacy of their citizens.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that China's new anti-terror law would require companies to provide encryption keys, based on a Reuters report that was subsequently updated.