The FBI wants access to your phone. But in a strange show of unity, politicians opposed that idea.
(CNN) – The FBI says it wants a gold key to access Americans’ phones. Now, politicians are pushing it back.
On Wednesday, a senior FBI official, Amy S. Hess, told a House Oversight Committee hearing that encryption of data on mobile devices limits the FBI’s ability to spy on communications. She says law enforcement needs a way to access smartphone content in order to stop criminals and terrorists, suggesting that the FBI may have access to keys that unlock customer information.
But in a strange show of unity, Congressmen opposed that idea almost unanimously.
United States Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican from Iowa, likened the move to builders installing a camera in every new home, and telling people to blindly believe those cameras would not be turned on later.
“Isn’t this similar to that?” Blum asked Hess. “You say, ‘Trust us; we will only do it if we need to.’
This hearing is the latest sign of a potential tipping point. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a nation in turmoil passed security-focused laws, such as the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the use of secret surveillance.
But the sentiment is beginning to shift in the other direction. In 2013, we learned that government spies collect emails, phone records, and have access to phone or video chats.
Tech companies, feeling betrayed, are encrypting more of their own communications, also offering that to their customers to protect them from hackers, cybercriminals, and government spies. Apple (AAPL, Tech30) has improved the security of iPhones by requiring the person’s password to unlock their phone. Google (GOOGL, Tech30) allows Android users to encrypt their phones … but not by default.
When a phone is encrypted, law enforcement cannot remotely search the person’s phone. The police need the physical device and a warrant. And – in theory – detectives need the person’s cooperation to search their device.
The FBI says that data encryption protects kidnappers and pedophiles from the police. Heiss reiterated this Wednesday, stating that encryption has “a tremendous impact on our ability to fight crime and bring those responsible to justice.”
“If these devices are encrypted, the information they contain could be unreadable to anyone but the user,” he said. “The process of obtaining a court order … could be a futile action.”
But in reality, agents can have access to your phone if they hold it in their hands. Local police in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando told CNNMoney there are devices to pull information from smartphones and then access it.
Matt Blaze, one of the nation’s leading experts on encryption, told committee members that having access to an encrypted phone is a piece of cake. It will take 10,000 attempts to enter with the four-digit password.
“In modern computing hardware, it would take essentially little time,” Blaze said. Seconds maybe.
Still, some security officials continue to oppose this level of personal privacy. Dan Conley, the top state attorney in Boston, criticized Apple.
“When corporate interests put crucial evidence beyond the legitimate reach of our courts, they are actually giving those who violate, defraud, assault or even kill a profound legal advantage over victims and society,” Conley said. “So I’m here today to ask Congress to intervene.”
The US Representative, Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, does not accept it.
“Why do you think Apple and Google are doing this? It’s because the public demands it … it’s a public that doesn’t want a runaway surveillance state,” Lieu said. “This is a private sector response to a government overreach.”
There is another reason to keep phones encrypted: If the FBI can get access, so can hackers.
That’s a notion about security that is often misunderstood: encryption is not a disk. It is more like an on / off switch. Either it works (by keeping everyone out) or it doesn’t.