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Apple, Android And The FBI NSA Surveillance Debate

Should law authorities be allowed to access devices?

By: Sasha Sutton  |@SashaEricaS
 on 27th September 2014 @ 4.33pm
how secure are our smartphones © Twitter
How secure are our smartphones?

When it is said that ‘Big Brother is watching you’ it is really not an exaggeration as in this technocentric age we live in, it is easier than ever for law authorities to track your every move, and monitor every communication you make through your devices such as laptops, phones and tablets.

But the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and security agencies have recently been irked by the two biggest technology giants – Apple and Google – as the encryption on the newest versions of the iOS and Android operating systems is so tight that the police cannot access devices.

Last week Apple unveiled its new iOS 8 operating system with new solid security features. Apple details in its privacy policy statement, “On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as… messages, email, contacts, call history… is placed under the protection of your passcode”.

“Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access your data. So it’s technically not feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8”.

And Apple’s competitor Google will follow suit with its latest Android system. The Washington Post reports that on some previous devices, Android has offered an optional encryption feature since 2011 but security experts state that many customers have not known how to turn this feature on. But now, Android data will be encrypted by default, putting another spanner in the works for law enforcement.

“For over three years Android has offered encryption, and keys are not stored off of the device, so they cannot be shared with law enforcement”, explains Google spokesman Niki Christoff.

“As part of our Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won’t even have to think about turning it on”.

fbi director james comey isn t impressed © Twitter
FBI Director James Comey isn't impressed

But the companies have received criticism from law enforcement and government authorities, particularly FBI Director James Comey. Info Wars reports that the federal chief expressed confusion as to why the technology giants would want to “market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law”.

He added, “There will come a day when it will matter a great deal to the lives of people… that we will be able to gain access to such devices”.

Others have also suggested that the move would also encourage criminal activity. Apple is essentially “announcing to criminals ‘use this”, former FBI General Counsel Andrew Weismann told Wall Street Journal.

“You could have people who are defrauded, threatened, or even at the extreme, terrorists using it”.

These developments have raised questions about the surveillance of devices such as smartphones, not only by the FBI but also the NSA and the CIA, and whether the government should really be allowed to access the public’s personal data.

The most controversial of surveillance technologies is a system known as ‘Stingray’ or IMSI (International Mobile Subsidiary Identity) catcher, which Wikipedia explains is a spy gadget made by telecommunications equipment manufacturers Harris Corporation, and can be mounted onto to military and law enforcement vehicles such as aircrafts, vans and trucks; but can also be carried by hand in a suitcase. The device mimics a cell tower in order to trick nearby devices to connect to it and from this, Stingray can extract unique encryption keys, ID and serial numbers as well as intercept communications.

the fbi uses surveillance technologies to intercept cyber criminals © Twitter
The FBI uses surveillance technologies to intercept cyber criminals

Although many may see this as a massive invasion of privacy, the FBI states many good reasons for using such technologies. “[Such technologies] have been instrumental in averting a terrorist plot, identifying adversaries involved in espionage activities, and helping to convict a child pornography subject”, explains the law authority on its website.

And that’s all fair in the name of justice, but it was revelations from whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked files showing that security agencies NSA and GCHQ (Global Communications Headquarters – British intelligence security service) had been carrying out a top-secret surveillance scheme on unsuspecting US and UK citizens, known as PRISM. The Guardian reports that Snowden was forced to flee the US through fear of legal retribution after disclosing documents showing domestic intelligence surveillance.

“The US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime”, Snowden said in an exclusive Q&A with The Guardian.

“NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure because it is dangerous”.

whistleblower edward snowden exposes the dark secrets of the nsa and us government © Twitter
Whistleblower Edward Snowden exposes the dark secrets of the NSA and US Government

So with increasing moral panic regarding the security and privacy we really have when using our personal devices, the question is raised whether technology companies will continue to install more features that will allow users to be off the police radar.

Blogger Jonathan Zdziarski pointed out that just because there is new encryption on iOS 8 and Android does not mean law enforcement cannot get hold of data – it’s just that Apple won’t be helping them to do so. “It’s important to take a minute, however, to note that this does not mean that the police can’t get to your data. What Apple has done here is create for themselves plausible deniability in what they will do for law enforcement”, explains Zadziarksi.

“Existing commercial forensic tools can still acquire these artefacts from your device, even running iOS 8 – I have tested with my own private forensic tools and confirmed this”.

“For the sake of privacy and overall security, the only logical solution is to make products as secure as possible, and let good detective work do the crime solving, rather than an easy button”.

So what was the fuss really about? Do these new security measures really make it impossible for law enforcement to access devices? Well it seems not and that the encryptions will present more security and safety from the very kinds of cyber criminals law enforcements are trying to track down - certainly needed in the days when one's personal naked selfies are no longer safe.

It is clear that move does not spell the end of technological surveillance but rather company compliance in the process. And after the NSA revelations sent shockwaves across the US and the UK, it is not surprising that the public do not trust security authorities; and feel exposed and spied as they use familiar devices.

Urban Institute Justice Policy Centre Senior Fellow John Roman, Ph.D, and Silicon Valley angel investor Dave McClure have looked at both sides of the dispute in a Huffington Post collaboration.

“This is simply a question for democracy to wrestle with. Prior to 9/11, we valued civil liberties over crime-fighting more than we did post-9/11, when the pendulum swang towards law enforcement”, said Roman.

“It’s not clear how big an impact these policy changes will have. But as technology evolves, the bigger questions are worth considering, because the day when media devices ‘go dark’ and become completely inaccessible to law enforcement may be coming”.

tags: Apple | Google

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