Privacy

Top Cops Pick the Midst of an International Spying Scandal To Demand Encryption Curbs

Regulating privacy protections would put the public at greater risk than criminals.

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You would think that the midst of yet another international scandal over governments spying on people who annoy them would be an inopportune time to call for curbs on tools that protect privacy, but that underestimates the compulsion that drives authoritarians. The world keeps offering evidence that encrypting communications is important, especially as a shield against the powers that be, but petty officials can't help but find such barriers frustrating to their eavesdropping impulses, even when they already have plenty of tools at their disposal for investigations legitimate and otherwise.

"As our two agencies work to protect citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, we have come to conclude that the single most problematic barrier to doing so stems from unregulated encryption," write Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., district attorney of New York County, and Catherine De Bolle, executive director of Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union. "To be clear, we both support strong encryption, just not unregulated encryption. No sector — in this case, the tech industry — should be allowed to dictate the rules of access to digital data for all of society, with limited regard to the wider impact those rules might have."

Despite the two officials engaging in popular tech-bashing, it's obvious that companies don't "dictate the rules of access to digital data for all of society." Through their actions and the tools they adopt, people communicating with one another have the greatest input into the security of their data. Vance and De Bolle would replace those multitudes of individual choices with one rule-maker: government. That letting government mandate some sort of access to private communications has a down side is apparent from the reactions of people who understand the technology and point out that you can't punch holes in privacy protections and be sure they'll only be used by good guys against bad guys.

"No matter what you call it, a backdoor is a backdoor," the Internet Society's Jeff Wilbur and Ryan Polk pointed out last year. "Any method that gives a third-party access to encrypted data creates a major vulnerability that weakens the security of law-abiding citizens and the Internet at large."

"Backdoors to encryption are like chinks in an otherwise impenetrable chain — once you've opened up a vulnerability, you cannot choose who can exploit it," agrees Adam Hadley of the UN-sponsored Tech Against Terrorism project in a letter written as a rebuttal to Vance and De Bolle.

Vance and De Bolle aren't specific in what they want in terms of regulation for encryption, but they demand access for government agencies—which means weakened privacy protections. They are specific in the list of horribles they cite as threats protected by encryption: child sex trafficking, organized crime, ransomware, and terrorists are all supposedly the main beneficiaries of encryption. Left off that list, though, are the activists, journalists, and thorns-in-the-side recently found to be targeted by many governments through the use of a single package of commercially available spy software.

"NSO Group's spyware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale, according to a major investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets," Amnesty International noted on July 18. "These include heads of state, activists and journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi's family."

"Amid the varied cast of people whose numbers appear on a list of individuals selected by NSO Group's client governments, one name stands out as particularly ironic," reports The Guardian. "Pavel Durov, the enigmatic Russian-born tech billionaire who has built his reputation on creating an unhackable messaging app, finds his own number on the list."

Apologists for the surveillance state will object that the United States government isn't like its authoritarian counterparts in Azerbaijan or Saudi Arabia, which used the spyware to monitor political opponents. But sometimes, there's good reason to fear the state in supposedly free countries.

"The FBI entraps hapless people all the time, arrests them, charges them with domestic terrorism offenses or other serious felonies, claims victory in the 'war on domestic terrorism,' and then asks Congress for more money to entrap more people," writes John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer and whistleblower, about U.S. torture. "This is the same FBI that tried to force Martin Luther King to commit suicide. This is the same FBI that illegally spied on U.S. citizens who were opposed to the Vietnam War. It's the same FBI that had an agent illegally impersonate an Associated Press reporter and illegally infect a 15-year-old's computer with malicious software."

As officialdom turns against not just those who expose misdeeds, but also those who support out-of-power political factions, we have all the more reason to keep our communications private. What we say may be less important than how creatively it can be interpreted by government officials determined to make an arrest, and there's no reason to make their jobs any easier.

Not that intercepting emails, text messages, and phone calls is universally impossible for government investigators willing to put in the effort. In addition to NSO, companies including Grayshift and Cellebrite specialize in helping governments bypass or crack encrypted communication. Success isn't guaranteed, but few things are. Vance and De Bolle even concede the existence of these capabilities.

"Where tools are available to unlock encrypted devices, however, they are often expensive," they write. "For agencies with fewer resources, funding expensive decryption techniques is impossible."

So, Vance and De Bolle's big complaint seems to be that conducting criminal investigations involves time and expense. If only catching bad guys didn't take such a bite out of weekends and budgets!

Of course, "regulated" encryption sounds like exactly the sort of compromised technology that real criminals and terrorists want to avoid. Earlier this year, law enforcement in a dozen countries stung criminal organizations with a network of encrypted phones created by the agencies themselves. It was a significant policing coup, but demand for the phones, and for devices offered by an earlier actual underground service, demonstrate that criminals and terrorists aren't interested in communications services that offer access to cops. They'll seek alternatives that remain unregulated even if that's illegal.

"Terrorists are highly mobile online and would be quick to migrate to services unwilling to cooperate with law enforcement," writes Tech Against Terrorism's Hadley.

The ultimate targets of regulated encryption, then, will be regular people using commonly available technology to share messages that annoy powerful people. Vance and De Bolle talk a lot about curbing privacy protections for criminals and terrorists, but the regulations they demand would increase risk less for bad actors than for you and me.

NEXT: Brickbat: Keeping a Close Eye on Canadians

Privacy Invasion of Privacy Encryption Police Law enforcement Cellphones Phones Warrants Fourth Amendment FBI

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64 responses to “Top Cops Pick the Midst of an International Spying Scandal To Demand Encryption Curbs

  1. Curbs on encryption would actually constitute a violation of freedom of communication as it essentially mandates that people communicate as the state wishes it to

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  2. Isn’t the US govt monitoring Tucker Carlson? Hasn’t the White House been teaming with big tech to silence online dissent? The punishments in the US have been less severe than in say Saudi Arabia but the govt actions are similar.

    1. “Isn’t the US govt monitoring Tucker Carlson?”

      Have they?

        1. Cite?

          1. Search for it yourself, dumbass troll.

          2. The NSA itself admitted it. Do you not read the fucking news? Is that why you come here talking idiocy all the time?

  3. Apologists for the surveillance state will object that the United States government isn’t like its authoritarian counterparts in Azerbaijan or Saudi Arabia, which used the spyware to monitor political opponents.

    Okay. At this point, I can only assume you guys are screwing with us, right?

    1. They said ‘apologist..will object.’

        1. Whoosh? A news report mentions that some people will object to a comparison when some people do…

          1. Whoosh…

            1. Bear in mind that last week QA claimed that HIV is a respiratory disease.

              1. If it works in education, as it claims, this would fit the general level of intelligence for that population.

    2. The “screwing with” part is where cops, not entrenched soft machine politicians, call the shots. Cops are the muscle that kicks in doors and shoots dogs and residents on their behalf. Honest men do not enforce totalitarian dictates, so every vote for Kleptocracy machine politicians is a vote to have honest First Responders™ quit, to be replaced by violent whack jobs eager to kick in doors, rob and murder for “the” Law.

      1. “Defund the police” was always a lie.

  4. The government already waged this war in the 90s and lost, badly.

  5. The ultimate targets of regulated encryption, then, will be regular people using commonly available technology to share messages that annoy powerful people.

    Ding, ding, ding!!! We have a winner here!

    And you can extend that statement to government in general. “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” ― Daniel Webster

    Government is not your friend.

    1. “Government is not your friend.”

      Yep. Government is a “necessary evil.” Yet some people seem to want a whole lot more “evil” in their lives.

  6. “This is the same FBI that tried to force Martin Luther King to commit suicide. This is the same FBI that illegally spied on U.S. citizens who were opposed to the Vietnam War. It’s the same FBI that had an agent illegally impersonate an Associated Press reporter and illegally infect a 15-year-old’s computer with malicious software.”

    This the same FBI that spied on an incoming presidential administration for the opposition party.

    1. Didn’t they spy on people in his campaign (and weren’t there some now convicted foreign agents in that campaign) because there was evidence foreign powers were trying to influence US politics in part through them?

      1. Only after they fabricated the evidence.

        1. Lol, no one had to fabricate evidence to find Mannafort fishy, everyone with knowledge about Russian and area politics knew he was a Kremlin stooge.

          https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2019/04/20/anne-applebaum-trump-is/

          1. Slit your wrists

            1. Lol.

              1. Piss off you TDS lefite shit.

                1. Auth right fucks like you need to piss off from the entire libertarian community.

          2. I’m really glad the author’s suspicions that Russia was up to no good were vindicated, but we were promised that the Trump administration would be found guilty of crimes that involved cooperating with Russia against the Clinton campaign, and that turned out to be bullshit that our intelligence agencies and the media lied to us about for a few years.

            We should all be concerned that our democracy is under assault by the political establishment and the media.

            Aren’t the people who oppose Citizens United supposed to care about the influence of bullshit on politics? Because what the FBI and the media did is worse than anything a superPac did, and I’m not surprised that the establishment and the media don’t care.

            1. It’s hilarious that the people who came up with the term “swiftboating” are totally ok with what happened here.

          3. Everyone with knowledge about Iraq and area politics knew Sadam had WMDs!

      2. No, they literally made all that up

        1. Really? They got convictions on a few people. And some of them were under suspicion for years before Trump even ran. I guess Obama used a time machine to know Trump was running and then ordered the FBI to start surveilling Page (to take one example)?

          1. “Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith has agreed to plead guilty to a single false statement charge, marking the first criminal action in an investigation centered on how intelligence agencies gathered information involving the Trump campaign and Russia four years ago in the waning months of the Obama administration.

            Clinesmith had been identified in an earlier report by the Justice Department inspector general.

            He allegedly doctored an email used as part of a process to secure court approval to renew surveillance on a onetime Trump campaign junior adviser, Carter Page. The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, referred the matter for criminal review.

            —-NPR, August 14, 2020

            https://www.npr.org/2020/08/14/902518714/ex-fbi-lawyer-charged-in-case-linked-to-alleged-abuse-of-surveillance-power

            1. A single false charge?

              As I said, several people in the campaign and administration were convicted on many counts.

              It’s a nice try, but one wonders, why try so hard on such a silly hill?

              1. “Several people in the campaign and administration were convicted on many counts.”

                “Several people”

                “many counts”

                Those are weasel words.

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weasel_word

                If what you’re saying is true, why don’t you link to what you’re talking about? After all, there are “several people” and “many counts”.

                1. Lol, ok. How about this, I’ll link to ‘several people’ who were convicted on ‘many counts.’ And then you’ll say ‘I, Ken, was a big dummy about this, my fervor for Trump led me to stake something dumb.’ If I don’t provide those links, I’ll say the same thing in reverse.

                  Are you a weasel or a man?

                  1. You’re a fucking leftie troll. Piss off slaver whore.

                  2. Asking you for evidence of what you’re talking about can’t be wrong, and pointing out your use of weasel words in lieu of evidence is entirely appropriate–when you’re using weasel words in lieu of evidence.

                    If you don’t have any evidence, just say so!

              2. “A single false charge?”

                You misspelled “conviction”.

                Usually when someone’s caught lying to investigators and fabricating evidence, it’s treated as consciousness of guilt of higher crimes. At least, that’s the way everyone treats anyone in the Trump administration.

                So the question is: what larger crimes are the FBI guilty covering up?

                In exchange for a pea deal offering this guy probation, the FBI got… no promise to cooperate with the investigation.

                When does the FBI offer a plea deal for no promise of cooperation?

                The answer is: when they don’t want cooperation to support the investigation.

                That you trust the COINTELPRO organization this time has more to do with politics than providence.

                1. She doesn’t even seem to know that the surveillance in question was initiated during the Obama administration.

                  She refuses to link to evidence.

                  I suspect her opinions are fact free.

                  1. Our democracy is under assault. It’s under assault by an FBI that engages in illegal activity to protect the political establishment from outsiders, and their propaganda arm in the media that covers it up for them.

                    That people ignore this while hand-wringing about laws against giving gifts to people for their vote is why our democracy doesn’t work.

                    1. What the FBI did to the Trump administration makes the Nixon administration look like a bunch of boy scouts.

  7. “child sex trafficking, organized crime, ransomware, and terrorists are all supposedly the main beneficiaries of encryption”

    Oh; so the U.S. Government then? Maybe when they stop doing exactly what criminals-do they won’t be thought of as being criminal.

    You rouge-government members have “The People’s” law over you – so stop being criminal and pretending “The People’s” law over you isn’t a joke.

  8. Encouraging our friends and family to use encryption may be as or more important than stopping the government from curbing its use.

    Signal’s phone app for messaging and video calls is as good as anyone’s from an ease of use standpoint, and Signal’s desktop app will do one on one video conferencing with your phone contacts as well as any of them.

    What’s the point of using encryption if you’re using WhatsApp? Talk about the fox guarding the hen house!

    1. Signal is great; the issue I have had is getting people to install and use it. Hopefully other folks are having better luck, or have more paranoid friends. And, yeah, using whatsapp is one of the most muddleheaded choices from a privacy standpoint. May as well simply run in the clear altogether.

  9. “The FBI entraps hapless people all the time, arrests them, charges them with domestic terrorism offenses or other serious felonies, claims victory in the ‘war on domestic terrorism,’ and then asks Congress for more money to entrap more people,” writes John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer and whistleblower, about U.S. torture. “This is the same FBI that tried to force Martin Luther King to commit suicide. This is the same FBI that illegally spied on U.S. citizens who were opposed to the Vietnam War. It’s the same FBI that had an agent illegally impersonate an Associated Press reporter and illegally infect a 15-year-old’s computer with malicious software.”

    Says the desk jockey from the CIA. This clod doesn’t know shit.

  10. “To be clear, we both support strong encryption, just not unregulated encryption.”

    “IOW, we do not support *real* encryption.”

  11. No sector…should be allowed to dictate the rules of access to digital data for all of society, with limited regard to the wider impact those rules might have.

    Bull-fucking-shit you nauseating totalitarian fucksticks. The right to privacy is a natural right and your attempts to abrogate it make you manifestly unfit for office.

    I quote Princess Leia: The more you tighten your grip, scumbags, the more VPNs and encryption tools will slip through your fingers.

  12. After morphine-producing Austria attacked its opium-exporting provider Serbia in 1914, excuses were made for stopping neutral America from encrypting messages. The result was a ramp-up of American slang via telegraph. Hippies used similar tactics to confound the narcs and snitches the Kleptocracy fielded to protect entrenched addictive narcotics from harmless psychedelic competition.

    1. Got a citation? I’d like to read more about that historical connection.

  13. “ district attorney of New York County”

    Who?

    This sounds like more of a job hunt than a serious policy discussion.

    1. New York County = Manhattan.

  14. Catherine De Bolle looks like she has just met our SPBP up close and very personal.

    Oh, and good luck with trying to regulate encryption! Those eurocrats really aren’t very smart, are they.

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  17. It’s vitally important to routinely remind American national security officials that they swore a supreme and superseding loyalty oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and protect Americans’ constitutional rights (Title 5 US Code 3331).

    America’s loyalty oath is an indirect oath, it’s not to the nation directly and not to the people directly – it’s to the conditional rule of law! Federal laws passed by Congress must circumscribe the U.S. Constitution.

    The U.S. Constitution is also a “wartime governing charter” designed to be followed during wartime. The Fourth Amendment is a core part of America’s loyalty oath designed to counter the abuses by the 18th Century British Redcoats.

    No American cop or national security official should behave like 18th Century Redcoats. It’s the greatest disloyalty for any oath sworn official.

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