Washington DC (TFC)— The Federal Bureau of Investigation made headlines by calling encryption “a threat to public safety”. Pointing to over 7,000 devices the agency couldn’t access in 2017, FBI head Christopher Wrey rekindled debate weighing personal security against “national security”.
According to an AOL reprint of Reuters reporting, over half of the devices seized by FBI during the 2017 fiscal year couldn’t be accessed. The encryption wall is a difficult hurdle, even for the federal agency. The Bureau is challenged by both an rise in encrypted devices alongside increasing reliance of electronic data.
FBI and other law enforcement agencies sometimes appear to support strong encryption. No encryption at all would punch a major hole in America’s national security apparatus. It’s for that reason law enforcement is caught in this odd paradoxical split between supporting strong encryption and a backdoor. The law enforcement community points to those large stores of inaccessible evidence as a hazard.
“We’re worried about a range of threat actors, from multi-national cyber syndicates and insider threats to hacktivists. We’re seeing an increase in nation-state sponsored computer intrusions. And we’re also seeing a “blended threat”—nation-states using criminal hackers to carry out their dirty work. We’re also concerned about a wide gamut of methods, from botnets to ransomware.”- FBI head Christopher Wrey during Cyber Security speech
The Fifth Column contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to get an informed perspective on Christopher Wrey’s comments. Although they’re currently swamped and didn’t have a spokesperson available, they directed TFC to a blog by EFF Deputy Executive Director Kurt Opsahl. Published in October 2017, the piece was a response to a similar speech by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Justice Department official made similar arguments as Wrey, centering around condemning strong encryption as a public threat. Opsahl pointed out false comparisons, and flat out misunderstandings of what encryption is made by Rosenstein. It called out the deputy attorney general for using word play to steer clear of the charged notion of a “back door”, preferring “responsible encryption”.
FBI head Christopher Wrey, however, didn’t stop at encryption. He also noted cryto-currencies and artificial intelligence as concerning the national security community. The former has made a lot of news over the last year with the various spikes and dips of Bit Coin, and it’s connections to legal and illegal drug markets. The FBI head noted his agency has reassembled itself for better tactical responses to cyber security worldwide. He stressed innovation not just in technology, but in all aspects of FBI from hiring to training and task force building.
The law enforcement official thereafter noted a conversation he had with “chief information security officers” questioning whether over 7,000 heavily encrypted devices is a “big deal”. That is, when compared to the millions of devices in circulation. Wrey stated FBI isn’t interested in ordinary people, just those associated with “criminal or terrorist activities”.
Others might say the vast amount of alternative information including meta data, social media info, and anything collected through things like cell site simulators as nullifying FBI’s encryption issue. Wrey brushed these comments off as well, noting the complexities of law. Just because you collect something doesn’t mean it’s viable in court.
As an example of what Wrey called the “Going Dark Problem”, he invoked Wall Street. “Some of you might know about the chat and messaging platform called Symphony, used by a group of major banks. It was marketed as offering “guaranteed data deletion,” among other things. That didn’t sit too well with the regulator for four of these banks, the New York State Department of Financial Services. DFS was concerned this feature could be used to hamper regulatory investigations on Wall Street.”
While claiming his agency isn’t seeking a “back door”, Wrey asks for the ability to readily access devices once warrants have been obtained. He took a shot at American tech companies for interacting with foreign governments for decryption while stonewalling FBI.
Silicon Valley’s rebuttals mainly center around the promise of customer security. Unsecured devices aren’t good branding, and could prove outright dangerous in some regards. Private companies may also fear how a future president might abuse any backdoor implemented by developers.
The line FBI made in the sand with the so-called “Going Dark Problem” is just one response to a modern frontier. Legally, philosophically, tactically, the cracking of heavily encrypted devices by law enforcement is setting precedents. It’s a future that, like that of digital privacy, seems as if it can go any which way.