The FBI’s Anti-Encryption Campaign
On April 24, the FBI’s war against public key encryption technology—the kind many of us use for texting, emailing, and online banking—entered a new phase. The FBI published a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on its proposal to “collect data on the volume of law enforcement investigations that are negatively impacted by device and software encryption.”
Tellingly, the bureau is not asking state and local law enforcement agencies how many times they were able to get into cell phones, tablets, or computers despite the presence of encryption technology. This new, skewed “data collection” rule is designed to further the FBI’s longstanding “going dark” narrative: that encryption is making the bureau’s job next to impossible in terms of fighting crime.
But that’s a false narrative. And senior FBI officials will frequently say or do something that proves it so.
At a public meeting held in 2016 at the National Academy of Sciences, then-FBI General Counsel James Baker acknowledged that the bureau was able to get into locked mobile devices in its possession 87 percent of the time.
In December 2020, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the international takedown of a criminal-focused virtual private network in what the department dubbed “Operation Nova.” The FBI worked withGermany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and European Union’s police agency (Europol) in the operation.
In June 2021, the FBI’s international Trojan Shield operation, in which the bureau ran its own encrypted device company called ANOM, resulted in more than 500 arrests globally and involved partners in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Lithuania, and the Netherlands, among others.
Even the FBI’s overseas partners are having success in cracking encryption and targeting encryption service providers. In February of this year, Dutch authorities announced they had penetrated and shut down another encrypted phone provider, Exclu.
Many major tech companies actually collude with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, despite ritualistic pronouncements from them about their commitment to user privacy. In a December 2021 piece on Just Security, longtime security researcher Riana Pfefferkorn put it bluntly:
“Given the FBI’s years-long campaign against encryption, it makes a strange bedfellow to the encrypted service providers it has condemned by name in public speeches. But service providers and the FBI both benefit from a popular misconception that underestimates the user data available to investigators from certain [end-to-end encryption] services. That misapprehension simultaneously maintains the providers’ image in the eyes of privacy-conscious users while upholding the FBI’s narrative that it’s “going dark” in criminal investigations due to e
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