Until March this year the official FBI website recommended that smart phone users turn on their devices’ encryption. However, amid growing alarm at tech companies implementing end-to-end encryption that even the companies themselves are able to decrypt, this was quietly removed.
FBI director James Comey has made increasingly desperate pleas for tech companies to build a ‘back door’ into their encryption that will allow law enforcement access to otherwise private communication. These have, however, largely fallen on deaf ears from companies that have been badly stung by failing consumer confidence in the security of their products following Edward Snowden’s revelations that they cooperated with the US government’s mass spying programs.
A senior FBI official, assistant director in the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, has now made the extraordinary demand that tech companies should ‘prevent encryption above all else.’
Even Comey has always paid some lip-service to the idea that security is important, but at a hearing held by the House Homeland Security Committee, with the rather alarmist tile of ‘Terrorism Gone Viral’, it seems Steinbach got rather carried away,
‘So that’s the challenge: working with those companies to build technological solutions to prevent encryption above all else.’
The ‘challenge’, as Steinbach sees it, is that tech companies are now taking meaningful steps towards doing what they should have done (and their customers expect to have done) all along… protect their customers’ privacy,
‘There are 200-plus social media companies. Some of these companies build their business model around end-to-end encryption. When a company, a communications company or a ISP or social media company elects to build in its software encryption, end-to-end encryption, and leaves no ability for even the company to access that, we don’t have the means by which to see the content.’
A popular theme in Steinbach’s slightly more measured accompanying notes is that, thanks to encryption, the FBI is ‘going dark’ when it comes to intercepting the communications of terrorists,
‘Unfortunately, changing forms of internet communication are quickly outpacing laws and technology designed to allow for the lawful intercept of communication content. This real and growing gap the FBI refers to as “Going Dark” is the source of continuing focus for the FBI, it must be urgently addressed as the risks associated with “Going Dark” are grave both in traditional criminal matters as well as in national security matters.’
This is a very similar concept to the ‘gap in capability’ argument recently used by the UK government to justify increased surveillance powers, but one which Duncan Campbell, one of the few journalists invited to a recent GCHQ conference on Intelligence, Security and Privacy, noted was more political rhetoric than a real concern for security services,
‘Despite the collection of current and former CIA, GCHQ and SIS officials, counter-terrorism commanders, security managers, and former permanent secretaries present, as well as the former chair of Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee, I did not hear the phrase “capability gap” mentioned. That sort of rhetoric seemed to be reserved for the political arena.’
This theme of ‘going dark’ was enthusiastically echoed by committee head, Rep. Michael McCaul, who said that ‘dark spaces [are a] tremendous threat to the homeland’. Fellow party member Ted Lieu, however, was quick to point out major flaws in this argument,
‘When they talk about dark places, ooooh it sounds really scary. But you have a dark place in your home you can talk, you can meet in a park –- there are a zillion dark places the FBI will never get to and they shouldn’t because we don’t want to be monitored in our home… The notion that encryption is somehow different than other forms of destroying and hiding things is simply not true. Forty years ago, you could make the statement that paper shredders are one of the most damaging things to national security because they destroy documents that law enforcement might want to see.’