Justice seeking access to encrypted communications

Law enforcement agencies remain concerned that strong encryption of everyday electronic communications is hampering criminal investigations and prosecutions, a top Justice official said.

Shutterstock image (by adhike): hacker over a screen with binary code.

All federal prosecutions have relied on some kind of electronic communication evidence, ranging from email to instant messaging, for some time, said Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division. But given the widespread availability of commercial encryption, the targets of investigations are increasingly invisible to law enforcement, a phenomenon officials call "going dark."

In a keynote address at the Internet Education Foundation's State of the Net Conference in Washington, Caldwell pleaded with the technology industry to help law enforcement balance its need to pursue criminals and the industry's desire for strong privacy protections for customers.

Caldwell noted that her boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, took up public/private collaboration issues while at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The web "has given unprecedented cover for all manner of criminals," Caldwell said. "There are no paper trails on the cloud, hard drives or mobile devices."

Federal law enforcement representatives are working with the companies that create and supply the technology, she added, and Justice officials intend to keep looking for ways to enhance public/private partnerships.

There have been some successes on that front, such as the public/private collaboration that disrupted the huge GameOver Zeus botnet in 2014, she said. But gaps remain. For example, the two men who attacked a convention center in Garland, Texas, in May 2015 were able to thwart an investigation to some extent. One of the men sent 109 electronic messages to "an overseas terrorist, [but] we had no idea what he said," she added.

Despite the challenges, the Justice Department is committed to working with industry and Internet experts on ways to satisfy privacy and law enforcement needs. "It's not an easy task and hasn't been throughout history, but this country has always found a way," she said.

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