Over a number of years, the FBI kept making the case for an encryption backdoor to smartphones. Of course, because “encryption backdoor” is a charged term, they said that they didn’t need a backdoor per se, just a (secret) reliable way to get into encrypted devices when they obtained a warrant.
This twisting of words is risible because “a reliable way to get into encrypted devices” is kind of the definition of a backdoor. Even the passwords set by smartphone owners are not reliable in the vein that the FBI wants them to be since people are prone to forgetting passwords: What if you went on a digital detox for a month and you actually did forget it? What if you changed it while drunk? What if you had a concussion? So, if you’re looking for a method that will work 100% of the time, well… it’s got to be a backdoor.
As part of their case for notbackdoors, the FBI quoted the number of inaccessible devices that were at the center of unsolved crimes. In January 2018, the Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, emphasized in a speech at a cyber-security conference that nearly 7800 devices could not be accessed in 2017.
Last week, the Washington Post wrote that the figure was inflated, which was confirmed by the FBI. The actual number of devices that are inaccessible has not been released as of yet, but it’s believed to be between 1000 to 2000, a range that is more in line with the 2016 figure: 880 encrypted devices.
Why the sudden decrease? The FBI says they made an error when compiling their data, a result of having the data in three separate databases instead of one, central one.
The FBI has credibility issues. In areas other than encryption, it could be because they’re victims of concerted political smear campaigns. Who knows, really. But when it comes to encryption, the Bureau keeps painting itself into a corner.
This month, it was the revelation of overinflated figures.
In 2016, the FBI took Apple to court, arguing that they had exhausted all avenues for accessing a terrorist’s encrypted iPhone. Towards the end of the legal battle, most experts were learning towards the opinion that the FBI would lose. Coincidentally, or not, the Bureau dropped their lawsuit at the eleventh hour, saying that they had found a third party that could crack open the phone’s contents for them.
Later that same year, the Office of the Inspector General reported that an internal miscommunication led the FBI to conclude that they had tried everything to crack the iPhone’s encryption… but they hadn’t. (So, technically somehow, the FBI wasn’t lying when they said they had).
And earlier this year, a second company announced discovering ways around iPhone encryption and began selling these techniques to law enforcement. At relatively affordable prices, one might add.
So. Over the last couple of years, the FBI has essentially:
- Mislead the public and Congress, probably not on purpose;
- Tried to force a company to redesign a key component of their profit driver under the auspices of national security, as if we were living in a Soviet-era communist nation, despite the fact that said company hadn’t done anything illegal (because, otherwise, why’d they drop the case? They should have continued even if they eventually found a way into the iPhone);
- Passive-aggressively insinuated that the entire tech community is a group that encourages and enables criminals, evidenced by its unwillingness (and not mathematical impossibility) to create an encryption backdoor that’s not a backdoor, because, you know, that’s not what the FBI wants. This, despite the NSA and the CIA issuing declarations that backdoors and other forms of intentionally crippling security are a bad idea.
The above, of course, does not cover scandals that involve the FBI that are not tied to encryption. It’s becoming very hard not to view the FBI’s action through a cynical lens.
One has to admit that the problem of “going dark” is real. While it’s anyone’s guess how big a problem it currently is, it undoubtedly will grow bigger as time goes by. A solution may present itself in quantum computers.
IBM warned earlier this year that advances in quantum computing could mean that today’s ubiquitous encryption can be easily broken in five years’ time. Their cost could ensure that only governments and large organizations can afford them for the foreseeable future – just like only they can afford supercomputers – satisfying the goal of not hamstringing cryptography as well as only allowing “the good guys” to break encryption when needed (and authorized).
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