While FBI dropped its case against Apple related to San Bernardino shooter's iPhone, in Congress continues a broader debate about national security vs. privacy.
According to the publication AFR Weekend, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gave a speech in mid-October 2014 at the Brookings Institution warning of the dangers coming from the fact that tech companies are increasingly encrypting their products. He said that, even with legal authority, the law enforcement agencies are not always able to access the evidence. He also added that the use of encryption is "going dark."
Comey singled out Apple in that speech. All of the data stored on Apple mobile devices are automatically encrypted by the newly introduced security features to iPhone operating system. Comey told the group that location, contacts, videos, pictures, text and e-mails are now out of reach without a password.
Users of iPhones still store much of their data in "the cloud" and, with lawful authority, FBI can still access that data. But a potential issue for law enforcement consists in the fact that uploading to the cloud does not include all of the data stored on a suspect's phone. If a suspect is opting out of uploading to the cloud or not backing up his phone routinely, the data can be only found on the encrypted device itself.
According to Comey, encryption is not just a technical feature but rather it is a marketing pitch. And it can have serious consequences for national security and law enforcement agencies at all levels. Criminals might evade detection by using these sophisticated means.
Just 13 months after that Brookings speech, a county health inspector named Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik opened fire in the first days of December 2015, in a holiday gathering of Farook's colleagues in San Bernardino, California. They have killed 14 and wounded 22, claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.
Among the items found by the federal investigators at the terrorists' home was Farook's employer-issued iPhone. But the feds could not unlock it, because the phone has its password protected by Apple's new, encrypted operating system.
Such situations can multiply in the near future. According to The News&Observer, a Duke professor said that resistance from big tech firms may attract more hackers. Mary-Rose Papandrea is an attorney and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and specializes in national security, civil procedure, civil liberties and constitutional law.
These are all areas linked by the debate over government access to personal encrypted data on electronic devices. Even if the FBI dropped earlier this year its high-profile case against iPhone-maker Apple, Papandrea said that the broader debate about encryption will continue.