Apple’s New Policy and the Return of Crypto Wars

Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive intrusion of privacy by US National Security Agency, may have marked the beginning of another round of crypto wars in the techie world.

Earlier this month, Apple announced a new privacy policy under its new release iOS 8. Under the policy, user’s data will be protected under a customer’s passcode, making it nearly impossible for Apple to decrypt such data even with a legitimate court warrant.

“On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8,”said Apple.

Google on the other hand launched an end-to- end encryption  on its Gmail Service. This implies data leaving your browser is encrypted until it is decrypted by the recipient browser, making it difficult for snoopy intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on users.

Google also announced that its next generation smartphones codenamed “L” will be encrypted by default . “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,” said Google spokesman Niki Christoffs

Apparently the move by Google and Apple to encrypt their devices, received mixed reaction from different quarters. For obvious reasons, customers are happy that tech companies are competing to protect their privacy.  On the other hand, the new encryption policies have caused a general freak-out amongst top Law enforcement agencies, including FBI and the Department of Justice.

Officials at the department of Justice (DOJ), fear the new encrypted systems as advertised by Apple and Google will make it harder if not impossible to solve some cases. One of the officials at DOJ equated the blanket protection of users’ to “a house that can’t be searched, or a car trunk that could never be opened.”

Andrew Weissmann, a former FBI general counsel, took jabs at Apple for he termed as an “Outrageous” announcement. To him, Apple is “announcing to criminal,” to use it devices because even a court warrant won’t help to retrieve any potential evidence. Soon we will “have people who are defrauded, threatened, or even at the extreme, terrorists using Apple devices.” Said Weissmann

Ronald T Hosko, another antagonist in this crypto war, called Apple’s new policy as “problematic” saying that it will inhibit law enforcement agencies’ ability to gather evidence to solve and prevent crime. “The agency long has publicly worried about the “going dark” problem, in which the rising use of encryption across a range of services has undermined government’s ability to conduct surveillance, even when it is legally authorized,” said Hosko, a former head of FBI criminal Investigation Department.

The level of privacy described by Apple and Google is “wonderful until it’s your kid who is kidnapped and being abused, and because of the technology, we can’t get to them,” said Hosko, “Who’s going to get lost because of this, and we’re not going to crack the case?”

In his opinion, it might take a major event, such a terrorist attack for companies to revert to their old way of giving authorities access to a wide range of digital data, something Mike Masnick dismisses as a “usual refrain any time there’s more privacy added to products, or when laws are changed to better protect privacy.”

Orin Kerr, a regular writer on privacy, technology and cybercrime issues, was troubled by Apple’s new encryption policy. Kerr said the new policy only serves to thwart lawful warrant but not t protect the interest of the public. Apple’s “policy switch doesn’t stop hackers, trespassers, or rogue agents. It only stops lawful investigations with lawful warrants,” said Kerr.

However, not everybody shares Kerr’s pessimism. Mark Draughn, a proponent of data encryption termed Kerr concerns as dangerous thinking. In his argument, “anything that Apple does to protect our data from the government also protects our data from malicious people inside Apple itself. After all, in order for Apple to be able to decrypt our iPhone data for the government, Apple has to be able to decrypt our iPhone data,” says Draughn.

According to Draughn, data encryption is here to stay, it is a personal choice that people should be allowed to make freely. He further adds that it is not the responsibility of users to make the work of Law enforcement easier as alluded to by Kerr. “It’s not Apple’s data, and it’s not Apple that makes the decision to encrypt the data. It’s our data, and we decide whether to encrypt it or not. Apple is just one of several companies that supply the tools we use to do that.” Wrote Draughn.

Crypto wars are not new in the world of technology, the renewed fights are just a chapter in a battle that have been on for ages. In mid-70s US, National Security Agency was in a similar a crypto tussle with a group of America academicians and scientists who were providing encryption to the public. NSA even tried prosecuting some of the proponents.

Lawrence Mwangi Lawrence is a technology and business reporter. He has freelanced for a number of tech sites and magazines. He is a web-enthusiast, with a special interest in Online security, Entrepreneurship and Innovation. When not writing about tech he can be found in a Tennis court or on a chess board.
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