Attorney General Holder Speaks Out Against Apple, Google Data Encryption

The attorney general said that recent moves to encrypt smartphone data by Apple and Google aren't needed because law enforcement agencies can adequately protect personal privacy.


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has added his voice to a growing number of law enforcement officials who are publicly criticizing Apple and Google for moving to default smartphone data encryption to protect phones from snooping and surveillance.

"It is fully possible to permit law enforcement to do its job while still adequately protecting personal privacy," Holder said in a speech before the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online in Washington, according to a Sept. 30 report by Reuters. "When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so."

Holder is the highest government official so far to criticize the data encryption moves, which Apple and Google recently unveiled in their smartphone operating systems, according to a recent eWEEK report. Google will include default data encryption in its upcoming Android L operating system, while Apple now includes it in its recently launched iOS 8 operating system, which is included with new iPhone 6 models and other devices.

Holder and other law enforcement officials say that the encryption being set up by default, without user intervention, will essentially block police and other first responders from accessing critical information that would have been previously accessible if suspects had not manually changed settings to encrypt their communications.

"Justice Department officials said Holder is merely asking for cooperation from the companies at this time," Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, James Comey, the director of the FBI, recently aired his own concerns publicly about the matter, according to a recent eWEEK report. U.S. government officials continue to be engaged in talks with Apple and Google to discuss their concerns about the default encryption changes. Comey had said that the changes essentially allow criminals to cover their tracks after committing crimes.

Previously, smartphones didn't automatically encrypt user data unless users took that step on their own. New phones will have encryption turned on when they are manufactured.

Some U.S. law enforcement officials are presently weighing whether to take their arguments directly to company executives or to seek congressional legislation, according to a Sept. 30 story by Bloomberg.

"This is a very bad idea," Cathy Lanier, chief of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, told Bloomberg. Smartphone communication is "going to be the preferred method of the pedophile and the criminal. We are going to lose a lot of investigative opportunities."

The Android L encryption move was unveiled in a Sept. 18 story by The Washington Post as part of Google's latest push to better protect the data of its millions of users, especially in light of allegations made in 2013 of government snooping in Google and Yahoo data centers. Those revelations allegedly included government scanning and surveillance of personal message data, which set off a firestorm of protests by privacy groups, officials and the public. Android L is expected to be released by Google sometime in October.

According to the AP, the changes by Apple and Google could still allow law enforcement officials to intercept conversations, but they "might not be able to access call data, contacts, photos and email stored on the phone."

In a recent statement to eWEEK, a Google spokesperson confirmed the upcoming changes. "For over three years Android has offered encryption, and keys are not stored off of the device, so they cannot be shared with law enforcement," the spokesperson told eWEEK. "As part of our next Android release, encryption will be enabled by default out of the box, so you won't even have to think about turning it on."

In a statement on Apple's Website, CEO Tim Cook recently said the company is renewing its commitment to user privacy. "At Apple, your trust means everything to us," Cook wrote in a letter posted on the new Apple privacy site. "That's why we respect your privacy and protect it with strong encryption, plus strict policies that govern how all data is handled."

Meanwhile, authorities still could have access to a person's cell phone data that has been backed up to online storage services, according to the AP story. "They could also still retrieve real-time phone records and logs of text messages to see whom a suspect was calling or texting, and they could still obtain wiretaps to eavesdrop on all calls made with the phones."