Terrorist attacks have reignited the debate about smartphone privacy and police investigations,
Terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut have rekindled concerns that unbreakable cellphone encryption is undermining police efforts to investigate — or stop — serious crimes.
The incidents have triggered the latest escalation in an encryption arms race involving tech manufacturers, law enforcement and legislators.
“No one wants to see terrorists and criminals taking advantage of encryption to evade detection,” Waterloo-based BlackBerry said in a written statement to the Star in response to questions about assisting police with search warrants wishing to access information contained in its de- vices. “We have always strongly supported law enforcement around the world when they need our help . . . We and every other tech company bears a responsibility to do all we can to help governments protect their citizens.”
That strikes a very different tone than Silicon Valley firms such as Apple and Google which have lobbied the U.S. government heavily — and successfully — against imposing any limitations on encryption, even when it pushes crucial evidence beyond the reach of police.
“We respect your privacy and protect it with strong encryption,” writes Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, on the company’s website.
A recent Toronto Star/Scripps News investigation detailed growing concerns from police agencies across North America about what they call their growing inability to investigate serious crimes — from child abuse to murder — because evidence is locked behind unbreakable encryption.
Among the digital age tools they are adopting in response to heightening encryption walls is sophisticated intelligence software.
Waterloo-based Magnet Forensics is among the largest of those developers with 2,600 law enforcement and national security agency customers in 92 countries, says Jad Saliba, founder and chief technology officer of the firm in a written statement to the Star.
The company’s software allows law enforcement to acquire, analyze and report on digital evidence, such as social-networking activity, images and other crucial evidence found on smartphones, tablets and computers obtained in investigations.
And that includes the latest version of the Apple iPhone, which is billed as unbreakable, he says.
“While conducting such digital forensic investigations on (an Apple device) is becoming increasingly difficult due to increased encryption, we’re committed to continuing to innovate to support our partners in law enforcement so they can get the critical evidence they need for their investigations.”
Earlier this month, Britain tabled a draft bill that would, if enshrined, compel tech firms to decrypt communications legally requested by the police and force Internet Service Providers to retain user record histories for a year.
On Tuesday, U.S. Republican Senator John McCain said he will push to outlaw encryption that the U.S. government can’t crack. And Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein this week called on Silicon Valley to take a look at their products that allow “evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents.”
Privacy advocates are quick to defend the importance of digital-age privacy and the risks that come with undermining its security.
“Of course we want to catch the bad guys,” says Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner and now executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. “We have to do it in a way that doesn’t completely obliterate everything else in the western world we value in terms of freedom.”
She, like a growing chorus of encryption and privacy experts, says proposals to build a “back-door” entry into encrypted phones for law enforcement are short-sighted because such a measure would be exploited by criminals and hostile foreign countries.