The ability of criminals to hide their electronic communications and digital evidence of misdeeds is a serious and increasing obstacle to law enforcement, one of the U.S. government’s top prosecutors said.
“One of the challenges we face,” Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told a convention of criminal investigators on Monday, “is educating the public that the ‘going dark’ problem is real and growing.”
Yates was referring to decisions by technology companies to encrypt communications and mobile devices in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to access data, even with court orders. Her remarks, made to an audience that was closed to the media, were posted on the Justice Department website.
Apple Inc. and Google Inc. last fall introduced “end-to-end” encryption on mobile devices that can only be unscrambled by their users. Not even the companies can unlock the devices and download the data for police and federal agents.
The Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have been pushing the companies to find a compromise that would result in law enforcement, with a court order, being able to obtain information on such encrypted devices as they have in the past.
Investigators can obtain some of the information -- such as photos and e-mails -- if it’s backed up on computer servers, known as the cloud. However, law enforcement officials have said there are no guarantees that such workarounds yield evidence.
“Some folks watch television and think that the government can get any information it wants, simply by flipping a switch,” Yates said in her remarks to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies in Williamsburg, Virginia. “We know that’s not true.”
Though she didn’t mention Apple or Google by name, Yates referred to problems being encountered by investigators seeking to exploit suspects’ mobile devices. If agents come across a phone during a court-authorized search of a home, they’d better hope it’s an older model so they can have it unlocked, she said.
“If it’s a newer smartphone, there’s a good chance that’s not possible,” she said. “The phone could contain photos, videos or other evidence of the suspect’s role in the conspiracy.”
Yates is the latest top federal law enforcement official to voice concerns about the trend. Former Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey have also been critical of the decisions to encrypt devices.
Technology companies have been increasing security measures for consumers following several high-profile hacking incidents as well as revelations in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that some in the industry had cooperated with government spying programs.
Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, declined to comment. A spokesman for Cupertino, California-based Apple didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Apple last year said it was implementing such encryption to protect its users’ privacy.
“Your trust means everything to us,” the company wrote on its website. “That’s why we respect your privacy and protect it with strong encryption, plus strict policies that govern how all data is handled. Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of all our hardware, software, and services, including iCloud and new services like Apple Pay.”