When Apple and DOJ faced off over an encrypted iPhone used by one of the shooters in a mass killing in San Bernardino, Calif., the tech industry rallied around Apple.
But Sessions came out strong on the government’s side.
“Coming from a law enforcement background, I believe this is a more serious issue than Tim Cook understands,” Sessions told Bloomberg News in February. “In a criminal case, or could be a life-and-death terrorist case, accessing a phone means the case is over,” he added.
The tech industry and civil society “have really come together to fight mandates for encryption back doors” — and there’s no reason to think that will change if Sessions is attorney general, said Robyn Greene, policy council and government affairs lead at New America's Open Technology Institute.
Reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require the government to get a warrant to search the contents of your inbox is something Congress (and the public) generally supports — even if they haven’t managed to get it done yet.
The amendment would have required phone and Internet service providers to hand over data with no judicial process if a government representative says it’s an emergency — amounting to a significant expansion of power for local, state and federal law enforcement.
The tech industry at large says it wants ECPA reform that provides greater Fourth Amendment, or search-and-seizure, protections for its users. Many tech giants — including Google, Apple and Microsoft — are part of the Digital Due Process coalition, a group pushing to update the law to that effect. Basically, the tech industry has been arguing for more protections, not fewer.
The amendment Sessions proposed suggests that he’s not on the same page as Silicon Valley and may advocate for similar exceptions as attorney general, Greene said.
But she is optimistic about the ECPA reform's chances going forward, especially after a package without an emergency amendment like Sessions's unanimously passed the House earlier this year.
“It’s not clear how much a possible Sessions-led Department of Justice could stop it — at the end of the day, it's the president that has to sign the bill,” Greene said.
Sessions is a longtime proponent of more limits on immigration. In October, he suggested that the United States may want to do away with the H-1B visa program, which allows companies to recruit foreign workers if they can’t fill positions domestically.
That puts him at odds with the tech industry, which generally wants to expand that program. In fact, a group backed by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg called FWD.us supports immigration reform — including more H-1B visas. In 2014, an ad campaign from the group rattled Sessions so much that he lashed out at Zuckerberg during a speech on the Senate floor.
Although immigration isn’t a primary part of DOJ’s portfolio, the agency can go after companies it alleges have committed visa fraud — and has in the past. Sessions has pushed for DOJ to do more on that front, signing onto a letter last year that urged the agency to investigate H-1B practices at utility company Southern California Edison.
“As the chief law enforcement officer of the country, Sessions would have incredible power to delve into things he thinks are important — and we know he's been outspoken about this,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.