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DEA Can't Get Around iMessage Encryption Roadblocks

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 5, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency aren't happy with Apple. They're complaining about not being able to decipher text messages sent through the company's iMessage app because of encryption, according to an internal DEA document viewed by CNET.

DEA Can't Get Around iMessage Encryption Roadblocks

The document noted that it's impossible to intercept messages from the app even if the agency could obtain a court order to do so.

Messages from the app can't be intercepted regardless of who the carrier is, according to the document, although they can sometimes be intercepted when messages are exchanged between an Apple and non-Apple device.

The DEA declined to comment for this story. Apple did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

Obsolete Court Orders

The DEA isn't the only agency grousing about encryption putting a kink in their surveillance efforts.

Court orders are becoming increasingly obsolete for obtaining criminal conversations because many of those conversations aren't currently covered by federal law, FBI General Counsel Andrew Weissman said at an American Bar Association forum in Washington, D.C. last month.

Weissman's predecessor, Valerie Caproni, held similar views.

"In the ever-changing world of modern communications technologies ... the FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order, and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications," she said in testimony before Congress in 2011.

"We confront, with increasing frequency, service providers who do not fully comply with court orders in a timely and efficient manner," she continued.

"As the gap between authority and capability widens, the government is increasingly unable to collect valuable evidence in cases ranging from child exploitation and pornography to organized crime and drug trafficking to terrorism and espionage -- evidence that a court has authorized the government to collect," Caproni added. "This gap poses a growing threat to public safety."

Encryption Use Growing

Although encryption has been around for years, its use hasn't been as widespread as it is now, explained Marcus Thomas, a former FBI agent and advisor for Subsentio.

"It wasn't taken up by mainstream users, partly because it's just too complicated to use," he told MacNewsWorld.

What's more, most people don't feel they need encryption. "They're mostly dealing with information that's adequately protected by the natural security of their networks," Thomas said.

What's changed in recent times is the growth of smartphones and increased use of apps. "That explosion of applications has given people a lot more communication choices, including the use of encryption," he noted.

In addition, as security concerns mount, carriers have opted to turn encryption on by default. "With the user not having to do anything to make encryption happen," Thomas said, "it's starting to become more prevalent."

DEA Overreaction?

While it depends how a service is structured, encryption can make obtaining information more difficult for investigators, according to Chris Wysopa, CTO of Veracode.

"In most cases, encryption raises the difficulty in getting information for law enforcement," he told MacNewsWorld. "In some cases, it can make it impossible."

"At some point, when it becomes so easy and so seamless for everyone to use apps that protect data from being seen if its subpoenaed, we'll have to see what happens," he noted.

What can be overshadowed by complaints by law enforcement is that what Apple is doing is fundamentally a good thing, argues Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"It's a good thing because it protects the privacy of communications from interception by those outside law enforcement," he told MacNewsWorld.

Even if law enforcement can't obtain specific messages, Fakhoury said, there are other ways it can get what it wants when conducting an investigation.

Law enforcement may be exaggerating the technology challenges its facing, he added. "It's overreacting to a problem that's not as big as it's made out to be."

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