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The Future The FBI Wants: Secure Phones For Criminals, Broken Encryption For Everyone Else

Published: March 19, 2018
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Source: Tech Dirt

The old truism is in play again with the FBI's renewed CryptoWar: if X is outlawed, only criminals will have X. In this case, it's secure encryption. The FBI may not be trying to get encryption banned, but it does want it weakened. No backdoors, claims FBI director Chris Wray, just holes for the government to use at its pleasure. So, if the FBI gets it way, the only truly secure encryption will be in the hands of criminals… exactly the sort of people the FBI claims it needs weakened encryption to catch.

For years, a slew of shadowy companies have sold so-called encrypted phones, custom BlackBerry or Android devices that sometimes have the camera and microphone removed and only send secure messages through private networks. Several of those firms allegedly cater primarily for criminal organizations.

Now, the FBI has arrested the owner of one of the most established companies, Phantom Secure, as part of a complex law enforcement operation, according to court records and sources familiar with the matter.

Phantom makes phones solely for criminals, unlike Apple or Android manufacturers, who only have a certain percentage of criminals in their userbases. All of these companies may provide the protection of encryption, but only one actively targets a criminal market. Encryption protects everyone, not just criminals, but that fact is usually paved over with subtle-as-10-tons-of-asphalt comments from the FBI director while portraying the FBI as the nation's white knight and cell phone manufacturers as profit-driven sociopaths.

These companies marketing directly to criminals do more to protect data and communications than vanilla smartphones. Remote wipe capability is built in. Often, cameras and microphones are removed, along with GPS software/hardware. It's more security than most people need, but then again, most people aren't cartel members.

The thing is, the FBI director doesn't care if you're law-abiding. He wants your encryption options limited and weakened so the contents can be accessed. This makes your smartphone more susceptible to being accessed by criminals, rather than just G-men. And these criminals accessing your phone will probably have phones the FBI can't even access, even with backdoors or key escrow or easily-cracked encryption. Chris Wray claims this is all about public safety, but he's willing to make the public less safe to gain the access he wants.

While I understand the concern of the inability to access evidence, the fact remains no solution involving compromised encryption will make the public safer. And while I understand the concern, the concern itself is overstated and accompanied by smoke-and-mirrors presentations. The FBI points to stacks of locked phones, but says nothing about the many tools at its disposal: phone-cracking companies, judges, contempt charges, good old fashioned consent requests, or whether all cases involving these phones remain at a standstill. The FBI does not argue in good faith, and the access it wants can only be had by sacrificing the security and safety of law-abiding citizens.

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