Washington,DC (Pontiac) — Recent months have seen debate wage over the true effectiveness of digital encryption. In a world where true privacy — especially online — may be only imagined, many seek protection against government surveillance. The Federal Bureau of Investigations, at the melee’s heart, just offered some encouraging insights. Perhaps at least the FBI isn’t as good at decryption as we all fear.
According to PC Mag, the agency is frustrated at the over 7,000 devices it hasn’t been able to access for pending investigations. The firewall, literally in this sense, is data encryption. FBI’s new director Christopher Wray called the fumbles “a huge problem” over the last year.
The agency has failed to obtain data from around half the devices it collected for investigations. Former Director James Comey made similar comments months ago, stating some 1,200 devices over three months couldn’t be accessed. Despite FBI’s slue of restricted, hush-hush methods of siphoning mobile and computer data.
This tug of war is beginning to shape the future of separation between government and the tech industry. For months, FBI and other government agencies have pressured tech businesses to open a backdoor. Most products, including IOS and other mobile systems, are encrypted to some degree. Not necessarily to keep the government out, but to generally protect sensitive user info. With hackers seemingly getting better at stealing thousands of customer’s info at a time, the argument is well founded.
There’s also a giant elephant in the room, that maybe the FBI isn’t being forthcoming. PC Mag notes that in one instance, when FBI couldn’t access a device, they paid an unidentified third party to crack the encryption. Possibly $1 million later the agency was in, and the unknown party scattered to the wind. While some speculate FBI enlisted the aid of Israeli cyber firms, the agency later suggested it hired hackers. How that refutes the prior claim, which hasn’t yet been confirmed, isn’t exactly clear.
It also doesn’t help the Bureau’s claims that the CIA apparently has zero issues. According to documents obtained by Wikileaks, the agency hacks not just smart phones, but computers, tablets, every connected device, and smart TV sets. The dump of over 9,000 documents suggested the surveillance is punctuated with Samsung products, Forbes reports. The leak also threw a monkey wrench into confidence that encryption apps like Signal were protected from government surveillance. Wikileaks’ documents reputedly suggest that CIA bypasses the apps by collecting data before encryption is applied.
To learn more, Pontiac Tribune contacted senior staff technologist Cooper Quintin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Basically”, he began, “encryption is still really strong.”
“The FBI is going to have a very tough time getting into a fully patched Phone (as we saw in the San Bernardino case.) There are exploits for iPhone that the FBI could use to potentially access an encrypted iPhone but those exploits cost somewhere around one million dollars. Unpatched phones however, and especially unpatched android phones are a different story, those can often be broken into very quickly because of vulnerabilities that have gone unfixed.” – Cooper Quintin, Electronic Frontier Foundation.
As for third party hacking, Cooper said “I suspect that the FBI has the capability to do a lot of this ‘in house’ and only has to shop outside to get the exploits themselves, if that makes sense.”
In totality, it may be that the government doesn’t entirely have encryption cracked. Or if it does, it’s only utilized for high value targets at stiff financial costs. Surveillance and encryption are two helix’s influencing each other as they wind. One develops and the other follows, perhaps fluxing back and forth over time.