Oct 02, 2014

    Phone data encryption no big threat to the authorities

    FEDERAL Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey recently criticised Apple and Google for encrypting new smartphones' data and rendering it inaccessible to law enforcement, even with a court order.

    The tech savvy among us have been using encryption to protect their information from prying eyes for years. Apple is simply democratising this tool, making it easier for the rest of us to shield the minutiae of our personal lives stored on our phones.

    The FBI director has complained that this will allow people to place themselves "beyond the law" because agents won't be able to get at information on an iPhone, even with a warrant.

    There is a certain irony in the FBI's newfound emphasis on warrants. Just months ago, the Justice Department was arguing that police officers did not need a warrant to delve into the phones of people they arrest. A unanimous Supreme Court ruling swatted that argument down.

    In any event, law enforcement has always needed to figure out how to break encryption on home computers and laptops, even with a warrant.

    The new Apple software and its Android analogue from Google provide a similar level of security for mobile devices that now store comparable information.

    Compared with the sea of information the government can obtain through various means, the information that's saved directly on our iPhones is but a crumb. That material is often stored elsewhere too.

    Having received multiple prompts to back up our information to the cloud, most of us have succumbed. Even if we haven't, it's likely that Internet companies have a copy somewhere on their servers. These e-mail messages, photographs and text messages are available to the government with a court order.

    Moreover, the FBI can obtain a pretty good idea of where we go and our associations. They can get this information through mobile-phone towers that track the location of users, and licence-plate readers that are sprouting up across the country.

    Encryption on iPhones may mean that a limited amount of information eludes the government's immediate grasp.

    But that's not so unusual - a drug dealer may dispose of contraband in the toilet upon hearing the police at the door, but we don't have a ban on flush toilets.


    The writer is the co-director of the Liberty and National Security programme at the Brennan Centre for Justice at the New York University Law School.