The news media have been buzzing about Apple and Google’s recent decision to more extensively encrypt data on new iOS and Android devices, and the government’s subsequent freakout.
Critics including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director James Comey, and Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier are claiming that these new security features will help kidnappers, sexual predators, and terrorists, and will endanger countless lives, all because police will have a harder time cracking into phones. Or as the Chicago Police Department’s chief of detectives put it in an interview with The Washington Post, strong encryption means “Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile.”
From the point of view of a detective investigating a crime, barely anything has changed
The problem is, these claims are just ridiculous and misleading. By improving the security of disk encryption, smartphones didn’t magically become super-secure anti-government machines. In fact, from the point of view of a detective investigating a crime, barely anything has changed — and suspects should continue to carry smartphones, because they still emit a huge quantity of data accessible by law enforcement.
Encrypting the data stored on your phone, as Apple and Google allow you to do, is pretty much only useful when the person trying to break in — in this case, the police — physically has your phone.
It doesn’t stop cops or spies from collecting your phone’s metadata: who you call and when. It doesn’t prevent them from eavesdropping on your phone calls or reading regular text messages. It doesn’t stop them from tracking your physical location whenever you carry your phone. It doesn’t stop them from reading your email or digging through your Facebook account. And as I’ve noted before, if you use cloud storage services like iCloud, it doesn’t even stop them from looking at photos you’ve taken, who’s on your contact list, and all sorts of other data.
So what is the actual issue here? Why are law enforcement officials screaming “kidnappers!” and “terrorists!” when all of these methods can still be used to investigate those crimes?
They are losing hold of some of the digital-device access they used to have, and that terrifies them. They’ll say anything to not lose an inch.
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP