U.S. federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to a prominent Republican senator on Wednesday night as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into controversial stock trades he made as COVID-19 first struck the U.S., a law enforcement official said.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, turned over his phone to agents after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a law enforcement action.
To obtain a search warrant, federal agents and prosecutors must persuade a judge they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The law enforcement official said the Justice Department is examining Burr’s communications with his broker.
Such a warrant being served on a sitting U.S. senator would require approval from the highest ranks of the Justice Department and is a step that would not be taken lightly.
Burr sold a significant percentage of his stock portfolio in 33 different transactions on Feb. 13, just as his committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings and a week before the stock market declined sharply. Much of the stock was invested in businesses that in subsequent weeks were hit hard by the plunging market. Burr and other senators received briefings from U.S. public health officials before the stock sales.
Burr has said he does not plan to run for reelection in 2022.
MacDailyNews Take: Interestingly and ironically, in 2016 Burr worked with Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) on a failed bill that would have required companies, in response to a court order, to decrypt data stored on devices they make, apps they design or online services they offer. It would compel them to provide to governments whatever technical assistance is necessary to unscramble the data. The invasive bill would have essentially required Apple, Google, and other operators of app stores to ensure that the data sent through the apps they sell through them could be unscrambled as well.
According to a January 2020 Reuters report, after the FBI complained that the move would harm investigations, Apple killed iCloud encryption that would have allowed users to fully encrypt backups of their devices in the company’s iCloud service.
iCloud data remains unencrypted today. Those concerned with protecting their privacy will not use iCloud for data they wish to keep private.
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