Drug dealers, pedophiles and other criminals hail strong encryption as “a gift from God,” senior police officials told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday — part of a full-court press by the nation’s law enforcement backing mandatory backdoors into Americans’ secure communications.
In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, New York Police Department Chief of Intelligence Thomas Galati said officers intercepted a phone call from Riker’s Island jail in which a defendant in a serious felony trial used the phrase “a gift from God” to extol the security of Apple’s iOS 8 operating system.
iOS 8 was one of the first Apple products to incorporate end-to-end strong encryption software that has law enforcement increasingly vocal about the dangers it will carve out surveillance safe harbors for serious criminals. FBI officials have, contentiously, claimed that the growth of such encryption has left law enforcement agencies “going dark.”
“Criminals are not bound by jurisdictional boundaries nor industry standards. They are increasingly aware of the safety net that warrant-proof encryption provides them, however, and we must all take responsibility for what that means,” said Galati.
In a dig at companies like Apple who have built their business on a promise of security, Galati added, “For the New York City Police Department, it means investing more in people’s lives than in quarterly earnings reports.”
Capt. Charles Cohen, commander of intelligence and investigative technologies for the Indiana State Police, went further, implying that by even holding the hearing, lawmakers were aiding child abusers.
“Criminals are listening to this testimony and learning from it… using this as an education to make them more effective at the criminal tradecraft,” he said, adding that his efforts to prosecute child sex offenders were being defeated by encryption.
“I see people who abuse children in online forums discussing the best possible systems to buy,” Cohen said.
The outspoken comments come days after the International Association of Chiefs of Police, of which Galati is a member, announced its official support for a draft bill authored by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would require communications providers and tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google to provide their customers’ data to authorities in “intelligible” form when required by a court.
The Burr/Feinstein proposal, titled the Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016, has drawn support from numerous other law enforcement associations, including the FBI Agents Association and the National District Attorneys Association.
Critics of the bill argue that forcing U.S. companies to assist in law enforcement investigations is unconstitutional, and that any “master key” capable of unlocking encrypted devices would endanger the privacy of innocent users on a global scale if acquired by foreign governments or hacking groups.
The legislation’s proponents say this risk is a small price to pay to be able to access information that could aid investigations into terrorism, violent crimes and cases of abuse.
When queried by Rep. Peter Welch D-Vt., about the dangers of a master key, Cohen responded that if Apple remained the custodian, the risk would be mitigated.
“With encryption, our drill doesn’t work,” he said, referencing an earlier comparison of an iPhone to a physical safety deposit box. “If we have Apple use the drill [to open the box], that adds another layer of protection.”
[Read more about the FBI’s anti-encryption research funding]
The FBI’s 2017 budget request includes an additional $38.3 million to fund anti-encryption technology and research — more than doubling last year’s $31 million request to nearly $70 million. In a subsequent round of questioning, ranking member Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asked Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Science and Technology Branch, why the government couldn’t defeat commercial encryption on their own.
“These types of solutions require a lot of highly skilled specialized resources,” Hess responded.
“Can we develop those resources?” asked the congresswoman.
“No ma’am,” said Hess, “I don’t think that’s possible.”