New York's Top Prosecutor Says We Need New Laws To Fight iPhone/Android Encryption

from the because-child-murdering-drug-dealers,-of-course dept

The greatest threat to law enforcement since the motocar continues to receive attention from entities aghast at the notion that peoples' communications and data might not be instantly accessible by law enforcement. Apple's decision (followed shortly thereafter by Google) to offer default encryption for phone users has kicked off an avalanche of paranoid hyperbole declaring this effort to be a boon for pedophiles, murders and drug dealers.

New laws have been called for and efforts are being made to modify existing laws to force Apple and Google into providing "law enforcement-only" backdoors, as if such a thing were actually possible. New York County's top prosecutor, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance -- speaking at an FBI-hosted cybersecurity conference -- is the latest to offer up a version of "there ought to be a law."

Federal and state governments should consider passing laws that forbid smartphones, tablets and other such devices from being “sealed off from law enforcement,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today in an interview at a cybersecurity conference in New York.
Sure. These entities could "consider" this. And then swiftly discard the idea. There's no good reason why millions of people's data and communications should be made less secure just to make capturing criminals -- a small minority of the population -- easier. There are only law enforcement reasons. And those reasons are specious, at best. Cops have been catching criminals since long before the rise of the cellphone and they'll continue to do so long after default encryption becomes standard operating procedure.

But to hear opponents of Apple's move tell it, encryption-by-default is an unfair impediment to investigative and law enforcement agencies.
“It’s developed into a sort of high-stakes game,” Vance said. “They’ve eliminated accessibility in order to market the product. Now that means we have to figure out how to solve a problem that we didn’t create.”
Vance's portrayal of this decision is dishonest and self-serving, but it's his last sentence that is the most skewed. Law enforcement (along with investigative and national security agencies) did create this problem. They abused their powers to obtain warrantless access to metadata, data, communications, and anything stored locally on the phone. Cops routinely searched phones of those they detained without a warrant, something that was finally curbed by a Supreme Court decison. The NSA, FBI and law enforcement agencies all use the Third Party Doctrine to access call records, cell site location data and anything else that can be easily had without ever approaching a judge. So, they did bring this on themselves. And that's why (as the oft-used quote goes) the "pendulum" has "swung the other way."

It's not marketing. It's a very specific reaction to years of unchecked government power. It's obvious the government can't restrain itself. So, these companies have made it "easier" for the government to refrain from abusing its power by making this decision for them. Sure, there's a limited market for more security, but making it default going forward gains these companies nothing in terms of new customers. It's not an option that's only available to people who buy certain phones or certain service contracts. It's for everyone who buys a phone. Vance echoes the statements of others in his attempt to portray this as a purely mercenary decision but the only thing this does is make him look stupider.

After ticking the mandatory "crimes against children/murderers" emotional-plea checkbox, Vance goes on to cross "public safety" off the list of talking points.
“This is an issue of public safety,” Vance said. “The companies made a conscious decision -- which they marketed -- to make these devices inaccessible. Now it’s our job to figure out how we can do our job in that environment.”
Incredibly, Vance portrays his deployment of every anti-encryption cliche as special and unique, claiming he's "going rogue" by speaking up on the subject. (Because everyone else has been oh so silent...) But there's nothing new being said here. Again, Vance pushes the "greed" angle, but it's his last sentence that's the most ridiculous.

Vance -- and others like him -- aren't "figuring out" how to do their jobs in "this environment." They have no desire to do that. What they want is to change the environment. The new environment doesn't cater to their instant access desires, but rather than deal with the limitations and approach them intelligently, they've chosen to portray encryption-by-default as Google and Apple's new plan to make a ton of money selling smartphones to child molesters and murderers.

They want the laws to change, rather than law enforcement. And all they've offered in support are panic-button-mashing "arguments" and heated hyperbole. The problem is that panic buttons and hyperbole are effective legislative mobilizers. As bad as Vance's ideas are, there's a good chance he'll be able to find a number of politicians that agree with him. In all likelihood, the environment will be forced to adapt to law enforcement, rather than the other way around.

Filed Under: cyrus vance, encryption, mobile encryption, privacy


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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 13 Jan 2015 @ 3:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Far far worse

    They are also blind to the fact that "public safety" includes safety from police abuse.

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