US Top Law Enforcement Calls Strong Encryption a ‘Serious Problem’

U.S. Deputy Attorney General and other top cyber policy makers warn the use of strong encryption hobbles law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and solve crimes and is a serious problem.

BOSTON—Top U.S. law enforcement and policy makers touched the third-rail issue of encryption Wednesday with several high-ranking officials lamenting their inability to crack open phones, laptops and communications protected with strong encryption.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the strongest argument that “warrant-proof” encryption hobbles law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and solve crimes. He argued instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Signal “encrypt their messages by default, thereby blocking the police from reading those messages, even if an impartial judge authorizes their interception.”

“Increasingly, technology frustrates the traditional law enforcement efforts to collect evidence that’s needed to protect public safety and solve crimes,” Rosenstein told attendees of The Cambridge Cyber Summit. No where is that more apparent, Rosenstein said, than with criminals that have “gone dark” and use the cloak of anonymity to access illicit markets that “facilitate all matter of crime, from narcotics trafficking, to illegal firearm sales, to identity theft, child exploitation, and computer hacking.”

He said, “the advent of warrant-proof encryption is a serious problem” and “it threatens to destabilize the balance between privacy and security that has existed for two centuries.” At the same time, Rosenstein also stressed encryption can be a valuable tool “essential to the growth and flourishing of the digital economy.”

A year and a half ago, Apple fought the FBI over data privacy and law enforcement’s attempt to force the company to unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist. That sparked a loud privacy debate that may have quieted over the past several months, but is far from decided.

Proponents of strong encryption maintain data protection is a basic necessity ensuring privacy and the safety of digital communications, data, devices and networks. Backdoors or weak encryption open the door for hackers or repressive governments to compromise individual safety and privacy.

“We are certainly not asking for a backdoor. What’s really important for America is strong encryption. It’s good for business, it’s good for individuals,” Rob Joyce, special assistant to the president and cyber security coordinator for the White House, told attendees.

“The flip side of that is there are some really evil people in this world and in the end the rule of law needs to proceed. So, what we are asking for is for companies to consider how they can support legal needs for information – things that come from a judicial order. How can they be responsive to that?”

Tech firms need to consider from the outset—when building a platform or building a capability—how they are going to respond to those inevitable asks from a judge’s order, Joyce said.

“There are other companies that I would consider more responsible corporate citizens that are considering from the start they will need to be responsive to an order,” Joyce said. “We are hoping other companies will consider our (legal) needs and not take a hands-off approach, but consider us in their architecture.”

Joyce said he didn’t expect companies to lay bare every secret behind an encryption application, but just “enough to be responsive to what law enforcement and intel folks need.”

Between the two, Rosenstein was the more vocal critic of the use of end-to-end encryption in network communications, laptops and mobile phones. “Our society has never had a system where evidence of criminal wrongdoing was totally impervious to detection, even when officers obtained a court-authorized warrant. But that’s the world that is being created,” he said.

“People should understand the consequences of warrant-proof security. We should have a candid public debate about the pros and cons of allowing companies to create lock boxes that cannot be opened by police and judges,” Rosenstein said.

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Discussion

  • dreaken667 on

    Sure it's a serious problem... for law enforcement, not the general public. The need for strong encryption has never been more apparent as cybercrime grows by leaps and bounds. The biggest issue with preserving weak encryption or providing means for law enforcement with the information they are requesting is the simple fact that if there is a way to provide the information legally there is also a way to obtain it illegally.
  • Ed on

    Trust us. We're from the government, and we're here to help.
  • GM on

    Clipper Chip anyone?
  • Peter B on

    The Trump administration is openly battling with truth and reason. Why not a war on math to boot!
  • Julio Jimenez on

    Rod Rosenstein should stop whining about strong encryption just because it makes his job a bit harder. In a higher priority to Rod's agenda are privacy, freedom, and the right to encrypt my data as much as I damn well please.
  • James on

    “The flip side of that is there are some really evil people in this world and in the end the rule of law needs to proceed." The flip side to the flip side is that encryption protects our data from really evil people. Every week there's a new breach. In that light, how can anyone be so tone deaf as to recommend weakening our security?
  • Bob Frank on

    Amen to that.
  • Bert on

    The moment you start allowing the government to decrypt criminals phones, criminals will just create separate communication platforms which will be encrypted regardless.
  • eric whitfield on

    ENCRYPTION - This is a HUGE problem, as i see it corrupt officials in government with access to encryption keys will be just as bad as the criminals! The only way is for a top person in government (one person only) to control the keys if given access to home computers or anything else like this. It does need sorting though as the vast amount of money to criminals is on the internet now. As for BITCOIN no more to be said as i have already said it.

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