According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (subscription
required), smartphone makers are receiving an increasing number of
requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies for assistance in
bypassing password protections on encrypted mobile devices seized
from criminal suspects. Although it is heartening to hear the
article's report that companies such as Google are challenging
warrants requiring them to divulge "any and all means of
gaining access, including login and password information, password
reset, and/or manufacturer default code" for a phone running
the Android operating system, it is equally alarming to hear that
smartphone makers are receiving such requests in the first place.
Unless they are nothing more than trial balloons, the fact that law
enforcement agencies are directing such requests at smartphone
makers suggests one of two unappetizing possibilities:
smartphone makers are surreptitiously maintaining databases
containing the passwords of every device running their operating
smartphone makers have programmed "backdoors" into
their operating systems allowing them to circumvent encryption and
other security measures upon request.
There is no denying that law enforcement agencies sometimes
require access to smartphone data for legitimate investigative
purposes, and that obtaining such data is becoming more difficult
as encryption becomes more pervasive. The trouble is that this law
enforcement need does not justify the kinds of measures that
smartphone makers are suggested to be taking to satisfy them. Quite
apart from the fact that encryption backdoors and databases of
device passwords are ripe for abuse by rogue employees or overzealous government officials, both measures
involve creating security flaws in mobile devices that
ne'er-do-wells will only be too happy to exploit. A database
containing every iPhone and Android device password stored on Apple
or Google's servers makes for a mighty appealing target for a
hacker, just as we can be sure that commercial spies and foreign
intelligence agencies are working hard to figure out how to exploit
mobile encryption backdoors for their own purposes.
There is no easy way to balance the growing need for
encryption in an age when we carry all of our information on
devices that are easily stolen or misplaced, with the need to
provide law enforcement with access to such devices for
investigative purposes. My own view is that this balance might be
better struck by interpreting the constitutional privilege against
self-incrimination as not always protecting against the compelled
disclosure of encryption passwords, for this is a "less
bad" outcome than having to live with compromised encryption
and the many cyber-risks this entails. Other reasonable people will
surely disagree, which is why a broader public debate on these
issues is of the essence.
In the meanwhile, mobile phone makers have a duty to disclose
to their customers whether the encryption software they are
including on their devices is compromised by backdoors for law
enforcement or other purposes, and also whether they are engaged in
collecting and storing the passwords we use to keep our data safe
from prying eyes. The Wall Street Journal article reports that
spokespeople for Microsoft and RIM confirmed that they do not
collect or store device passwords, but representatives for the big
four mobile companies (Apple, Google, Microsoft, and RIM) need to
be transparent with the public on whether their products contain
backdoors. Customers have a right to make informed choices about
how and where they store their data, and some may well choose not
to trust their digital devices with certain kinds of information if
their security measures are defective right out of the box.
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