So this is interesting. Yesterday, CNET had a story revealing a "leaked" Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) memo suggesting that messages sent via Apple's own iMessage system were untappable
and were "frustrating" law enforcement. Here's a snippet from that article:
Encryption used in Apple's iMessage chat service has stymied attempts by federal drug enforcement agents to eavesdrop on suspects' conversations, an internal government document reveals.
An internal Drug Enforcement Administration document seen by CNET discusses a February 2013 criminal investigation and warns that because of the use of encryption, "it is impossible to intercept iMessages between two Apple devices" even with a court order approved by a federal judge.
CNET posted an image of the letter:
In reading over this, however, a number of people quickly called bullshit. While Apple boasts of "end-to-end encryption" it's pretty clear that Apple itself holds the key -- because if you boot up a brand new iOS device, you automatically get access to your old messages. That means that (a) Apple is storing those messages in the cloud and (b) it can decrypt them if it needs to. As Julian Sanchez discusses in trying to get to the bottom of this
, the memo really only suggests that law enforcement can't get those messages by going to the mobile operators
. It says nothing
about the ability to get those same messages by going to Apple directly
. And, in fact, in many ways iMessages may be even more prone to surveillance, since SMS messages are only stored on mobile operators' servers for a brief time, whereas iMessages appear to be stored by Apple indefinitely.
That leads Sanchez to wonder if there might be some sort of ulterior motive behind the "leaking" of this document, done in a way to falsely imply that iMessages are actually impervious to government snooping. He comes up with two plausible theories: (1) that this is part of the feds' longstanding effort to convince lawmakers to make it mandatory
that all communications systems have backdoors for wiretapping and (2) that it's an attempt to convince criminals that iMessages are safe, so they start using them falsely believing their messages are protected.
Which brings us to the question of why, exactly, this sensitive law enforcement document leaked to a news outlet in the first place. It would be very strange, after all, for a cop to deliberately pass along information that could help drug dealers shield their communications from police. One reason might be to create support for the Justice Department’s longstanding campaign for legislation to require Internet providers to create backdoors ensuring police can read encrypted communications—even though in this case, the backdoor would appear to already exist.
The CNET article itself discusses this so-called “Going Dark” initiative. But another possible motive is to spread the very false impression that the article creates: That iMessages are somehow more difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to intercept. Criminals might then switch to using the iMessage service, which is no more immune to interception in reality, and actually provides police with far more useful data than traditional text messages can. If that’s what happened here, you have to admire the leaker’s ingenuity—but I’m inclined to think people are entitled to accurate information about the real level of security their communication enjoy.
While both scenarios are plausible, both seem fairly cynical as well. I'd like to think that law enforcement is above attempting such tricks, but unfortunately that might just be naive these days.