Google is delaying plans to encrypt all new Android phones by default, Ars Technica reports, because the technical demands of encryption are crippling people’s devices.
Encryption slowed down some phones by 50% or more, speed tests show.
In September 2014, Google — along with Apple — said that it planned to encrypt all new devices sold with its mobile OS by default. This means that unless a customer opted out, it would be impossible for anyone to gain access to their device without the passcode, including law enforcement (or Google itself).
This hardened stance on encryption from tech companies came after repeated revelations about the NSA, GCHQ and other government spy agencies snooping on ordinary citizens’ data.
Default encryption has infuriated authorities. One US cop said that the iPhone would become “the phone of choice for the paedophile” because law enforcement wouldn’t be able to access its contents. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has floated the idea of banning strong encryption altogether — though the proposal has been slammed by critics as technically unworkable.
Apple rolled out default-on encryption in iOS 8 back in September. Google’s Android Lollipop system was first released in November — but because the phone manufacturers, rather than Google itself, are responsible for pushing out the update, it can take months for a new version of the OS to reach the majority of consumers.
But as Ars Technica reports, Lollipop smartphones are now finally coming to the market, and many do not have default-on encryption. So what’s the reason? The devices couldn’t actually handle it.
Speed tests show that even Google’s flagship phone, the Google Nexus 6, suffers serious slowdown when encryption is turned on. A “random write” test measuring writing data to memory showed that the Nexus 6 performed more than twice as fast with encryption switched off — 2.85MB per second as compared with 1.41 per second with it on. The difference was even more striking in a “sequential read” test to measure memory reading speeds. An unecrypted device achieved 131.65MB/s; the encrypted version managed just 25.36MB/s. That’s a third of even the Nexus 5, the previous model, which came in at 76.29MB/s.
As such, Google is now rowing back on its encryption stance. Its guidelines now say that full-disk encryption is “very strongly recommended” on devices, rather than the necessary requirement promised. Users can still encrypt their devices (even if it slows them down), but it won’t happen by default.
Google says it still intends to force it in “future versions of Android”.