While all of us have been going about our business, cops and prosecutors have been going about theirs, collecting vital evidence with the potential to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. But because the devices on which this evidence increasingly sits are equipped with uncrackable encryption, they may as well be throwing them into a black hole.
Encryption is a critical tool. It lets dissidents in China or Iran or Russia communicate without being suffocated by repressive regimes. It lets American whistleblowers store sensitive information, and then send it, without fingerprints, to journalists like us.
But it also enables criminals who traffic in child pornography to laugh at the law as they store incriminating images. It lets murderers and rapists prevent officers and prosecutors from accessing their text-message histories and address books.
In testimony to the U.S. Senate last week, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance pointed to a better way. His staff obtains an average of 1,600 devices, almost all of them smartphones, each year. Today, more than 80% of those are encrypted.
Vance wants a new law to require tech companies to grant cops and prosecutors access when they have a valid, court-ordered search warrant, provided their search is limited to “data at rest,” which is to say, files already stored on the device.
From DNA to surveillance cameras, technology has been a great blessing to law enforcement. Here, it is a creeping curse.