Is Data Encryption a Bad Idea?

Is Data Encryption Bad or Good?

Privacy is a good thing. But can it also be a bad thing?

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey recently said the agency is holding talks with Apple and Google over concerns their heightened encryption technology on new smartphones will hinder FBI investigations.

Saying investigators should certainly need to obtain a search warrant before accessing someone’s private data, Comey also stressed he could not agree with the makers of the new Android L and iOS 8 systems “marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.”

Separating business and government

In light of the publicity generated by Central Intelligence Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, companies have tried to distance themselves from any appearance of being shills for the government. Snowden released classified documents uncovering covert law enforcement surveillance programs aided and abetted by private companies (especially those in the telecommunications sector).

Apple spelled its stance out quite clearly, declaring via its Privacy Policy: “Apple has never worked with any government agency from any country to create a “back door” in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government access to our servers. And we never will.”

And, beginning with its newest operating system, iOS 8, even Apple can’t supply a code to unlock a customer’s phone — court order or not.

Google agrees with Apple on this point

Shortly after Apple released iOS 8 (in the iPhone 6), Google proclaimed the same capability will be standard issue in its upcoming launch of the Android L system. The Washington Post quoted a Google spokesperson Niki Christoff as saying, “As part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won’t even have to think about turning it on.”

Googlers point out that encryption has been available on Android devices since the Honeycomb release in 2011, though most users aren’t aware of the capability. The big switch is that data will now be encrypted automatically, reports the Washington Post.

How will encrypted data affect you?

When you lock your phone, the data is still available to anyone who can break the lock code, steal the lock code, or use a program to bypass the lock code. With encryption, that data is scrambled and unavailable to anyone who does not know the code.

For most people, that means better protection from thieves. For criminals, that means a more secure way to keep potentially incriminating evidence away from law enforcement. In a typical sting, police will set up a mobile surveillance trailer equipped with cameras and telecommunications interception devices. Once it is ascertained there is reasonable cause of criminal activity, they will obtain a search warrant and take computers, cell phones, and any other recording devices that may harbor evidence back to the lab and break in. The updated encryption feature will make a break-in impossible, however. Without the access code, any evidence on the phone is unavailable to the police.

Encryption, then, is a double-edged sword: on one hand, your private information will be even more private. On the other, encryption could conceivably prevent the detection and prevention of a terrorist attack at an event you and your family are attending.

What do you think? Is it right to forego rights in order to gain better protection? Are Apple and Google acting in your best interests, or simply trying to protect their revenue stream? Sometimes, the right thing isn’t easy to determine.