By Benjamin Solomon, Staff Writer
The FBI has failed to gain access to almost 7,000 of the smartphones they attempted to unlock in the last year, according to the Associated Press. This is a good thing, because it means encryption works.
According to a senior computer engineering student, Brent Rubell, “Encryption is a method of taking information and scrambling [it] by using a code to obfuscate it. For example, the word ‘dog’ can be encrypted by moving each letter over one value such that it reads ‘eph.’ The method of moving each letter over is the encryption ‘key.’”
The FBI is frustrated about this because it means they are unable to find evidence they are looking for. An example of this might be incriminating text messages or pictures involving drugs or child pornography or other crimes.
It is illegal for the FBI to force an individual to unlock their phone, as that violates their fifth amendment right to not incriminate themselves. This is true with devices which use codes or combinations, but importantly not true with devices that have biometric unlocking abilities, like face scans or thumbprints.
For this reason, the FBI has, in the past, attempted to force companies like Apple to provide means to access information stored on devices they sell. This was a problem because Apple could not provide access to one iPhone without providing a means to access all other iPhones.
Essentially, they would be handing over the keys to everybody’s house in order to get into one house.
There was a Supreme Court case due to this, which was dropped because the FBI found a different company to unlock the phone. A decision was never handed down on this, which leaves the topic open ended.
The FBI should not be able to so easily access information on cell phones, because it would make them less secure in general.
Government agencies get hacked often enough that one cannot rule out the possibility of this capability falling into the hands of those who would use it against us. For that matter, protection against the government itself is of concern.
If entities outside of the government gained the ability to quickly unlock and decrypt cellphones, then that would grant them access to a wide variety of things. Most obviously, whatever is stored on there, like pictures. It is not unusual for pictures of a private nature to be kept on a phone, which might be used against the former owner.
Additionally, a clandestine user of your phone would have access to nearly all of the owner’s apps and accounts on there. Facebook, Twitter, email, you name it. This could mess up one’s life either by impersonating you, or by simply changing account details so the owner cannot access them. All of these things could be used as blackmail to obtain money from the owner.
Similarly, the government should not have this capability because the government itself is not free from abuse. It is unlikely that official policies would make use of these capabilities illegal, but it would be foolish to discount the chance that individuals within the government could act on their own.
There have been instances of NSA employees abusing their surveillance powers to spy on their spouses.
It is all because of encryption that these issues are not something we have to deal with daily. It is not easy for the FBI to break into your phone. That’s good, because it means it isn’t easy for anyone else, either.
If it is hard to access your stuff, then breaking in will not be done frivolously.