FBI Director James Comey says he is worried that, with recent and upcoming updates to their smartphone operating systems, Apple and Google are making life easier for criminals.
“What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law,” Comey told reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Comey says it might be time for a national conversation about privacy versus security tradeoffs when it comes to technology.
(Aren’t we always having just such a conversation?)
It’s true that Apple recently changed iOS and Google will soon change Android to make it harder for law enforcement officials to access data stored on smartphones used by bad guys.
A couple days ago, a former FBI official expressed similar concerns as Comey’s, so we looked into exactly how Apple’s and Google’s data-encryption changes will affect law enforcement going forward.
The most important thing to know is that phone calls and text messages have always been, and continue to be, intercept-able by law enforcement through cooperation with wireless carriers. That type of communication was not encrypted in April, and it’s not encrypted now. Further: Apple and Google have never been involved in that legal process. If cops want to tap a bad guy’s iPhone, the cops have to go to AT&T or Verizon or whomever the bad guys pay every month for data and voice.
The next thing to know is that, when it comes to Apple devices, iMessage and Facetime have always been, and continue to be, encrypted. Communication through those products was never intercept-able by law enforcement — not back in April and not now.
There has been one big change when it comes to iMessage, however.
Before Apple changed iOS, law enforcement would have been able to get a warrant to break into a bad guy’s phone and see if any iMessages were stored on the device.
Today, after the rollout of iOS 8, the cops might not be able to do that. That’s because in iOS 8, stored iMessages are encrypted — kept behind a password that only the owner of the phone knows. The same goes for everything else stored on the device, including emails and photos.
The only way the cops would be able to see saved iMessages, photos, and other data the bad guys stored on their phones after the rollout of iOS 8 would be if the bad guys backed up all that data to iCloud OR to another device, like a laptop or desktop computer. iCloud is not encrypted the way phones are, and all the data is stored on Apple’s servers. It can be accessed under warrant. Likewise, most laptops or desktops don’t have the encryption that iOS 8 has.
When it comes to Google, the situation is basically the same: intercepting phone calls and text messages has nothing to do with Android encryption. Backed-up data on the device, however, is less available to law enforcement now.