Unbreakable Encryption Poses Big Problems for Law Enforcement

By Zeller, Shawn | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

Unbreakable Encryption Poses Big Problems for Law Enforcement


Zeller, Shawn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


WASHINGTON - Among the revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden two years ago was that the NSA, the Defense Department's intelligence arm, was surreptitiously tapping into the data centers of major tech companies and snooping on customer emails. It outraged the companies, Google among them, prompting upgrades to their security by encrypting more data.

That encryption has gradually improved and is now unbreakable. It's put the government in the awkward position of having to go to the tech companies and ask them to voluntarily build weaknesses into their cyber defenses in order to allow the government access in criminal investigations.

Top federal law enforcement officials made a vigorous case to the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 8 that unbreakable encryption is posing big problems for law enforcement.

Encryption developed by Apple and Google for the latest versions of their mobile operating systems is rendering cellphones "essentially a brick" to law enforcement agents, said Sally Quillian Yates, the deputy attorney general. Even with a warrant, "we can't access any of the information on that phone."

For now, the government is playing nice. Ms. Yates and FBI Director James B. Comey say they want the technology companies to voluntarily build weaknesses into their systems that will enable them to access customer emails and text messages when law enforcement agents present a warrant. Both Ms. Yates and Mr. Comey say they're not asking for direct access to corporate servers.

But the history of NSA surveillance isn't working in law enforcement's favor. When Google released its latest Android operating system last year, it said strong encryption would be available by default.

Apple, on its website, touts the security of its iOS 8 operating system. In its marketing materials, Apple says it has never consented to weaken its encryption. "We also have never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will," Apple says.

Neither company would comment about Ms. Yates' and Mr. Comey's testimony. But in May, both companies signed a letter to President Barack Obama blasting the Justice Department position: "We urge you to reject any proposal that U. …

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