Privacy vs. Public Safety: FBI takes issue with enhanced mobile security

by Matt Klassen on September 30, 2014

While the debate between user privacy and public safety and security is nothing new to the mobile world (as Blackberry is well aware), the fact that both Google and Apple have employed enhanced default encryption standards to Android and iOS respectively means that the debate is taking on a new life, one that sees user privacy now getting the upper hand over data accessibility by law enforcement agencies.

To that end, FBI Director James Comey went public last week with a strongly worded criticism aimed at Google and Apple, claiming that the new encryption standards go too far, as now law enforcement agencies have no avenue, even with a court order, to access the information on these devices. The concern, by extension, is that an entirely protected mobile world only truly favours the law-breakers, offering a safe communication haven for terrorists and kidnappers. Without access to mobile data, Comey warns, lives will be lost.

Unfortunately though, in the wake of the NSA Prism scandal this entire privacy vs. public safety debate has become entirely skewed towards privacy, as the concern of users and tech companies alike is now the unwarranted intrusion of Big Brother. But while enhanced encryption standards have all but eliminated the threat of unwarranted intrusion, have things gone too far, should privacy protection inherently allow for warranted (court ordered) access by law enforcement?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of privacy protection for mobile users and preventing the unwarranted intrusion of anyone, hackers or government agents, on our mobile devices, but there’s a middle ground that has to be found in this debate and right now, unfortunately, the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of user privacy.

You see, with Google and Apple’s enhanced encryption standards users’ personal data is protected not only from law enforcement, but from everyone, meaning like Blackberry before it, Google and Apple have given up any and all access to that information. “I understand there will be accusations about hindering investigations and so forth. But Apple and Google will not have the technical capabilities to turn over that data. They do have access to whatever is in the cloud,” Charles Tendell, founder of Azorian Cyber Security, told TechNewsWorld.

The problem, as Tendell mentions, becomes that even with a court-issued warrant, law enforcement cannot access mobile data because Google and Apple can’t give it to them; they’ve removed themselves completely from the security process. It’s this complete inaccessibility of mobile data that has Comey worried about the future of law enforcement surrounding mobile communication.

Finally, I have to wonder if Google and Apple will feel the same global backlash against their encryption standards that Blackberry faced several years ago, the great security controversy that had many countries ban Blackberry products outright because it couldn’t provide the encryption keys for its enhanced security protocols.

So where do you stand on this issue? Are you a hardcore advocate for consumer privacy, one who supports the complete inaccessibility of mobile data, even through warranted legal channels, or are you one who thinks tech companies have gone too far, creating a safe communication haven for the worst of our society?

It’s a brave new world of data privacy folks; I just hope we’re ready to handle all that this entails.

Correction: This post incorrectly attributed a quote to Trent Telford that was actually made by Charles Tendell. Corrected Oct 3, 2014.

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