DOJ official: Some crypto poses 'undeniable' threat to public safety

Encryption has its virtues, but it is not universally good, said Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for Justice's Criminal Division.

Leslie Caldwell, assistant Attorney General. Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas, FCW.

Some uses of encryption present hazards to society, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said. Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas, FCW.

Some uses of end-to-end encryption pose undeniable threats to public safety, a top Justice Department official said June 6, invoking a long-standing source of tension between law enforcement and technology firms.

Although encryption is essential for cybersecurity and protecting privacy, "there are certain implementations of encryption that...pose an undeniable and growing threat to...law enforcement's ability to protect the American public," said Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general for Justice’s Criminal Division, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Popular security products such as malware scanners would not work in a world of universal encryption because they require access by someone other than the end user, Caldwell said.

"Digital security is a vital tool, but it is not a cure-all, especially when it impedes our ability to protect ourselves and each other in the very real, physical world," she added.

Caldwell offered the example of Brittney Mills, a pregnant woman murdered in Louisiana, as an example of what she said were the perils of end-to-end encryption. Authorities believe clues to Mills' murder might lie on her iPhone, but they are unable to unlock it. State and local law enforcement agencies across the country have made hundreds of requests to the FBI to unlock encrypted mobile devices.

The debate over law enforcement access to encrypted communications reached a fever pitch in February when a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters.

Apple CEO Tim Cook vehemently opposed the order, casting it as a threat to internet security. The FBI eventually dropped the case after paying an unidentified third party to unlock the phone.

The FBI wants to ramp up its resources for tackling the challenges encryption poses to law enforcement. Its fiscal 2017 budget request more than doubles the amount of money the bureau puts toward breaking encryption and de-anonymizing criminals.

White House officials from President Barack Obama on down have publicly professed support for strong encryption while dismissing the notion that their pursuit of backdoor access to communications puts them at odds with technology firms. Other policy insiders, including U.S. CIO Tony Scott, have taken positions contrary to the law enforcement stance, arguing that encryption backdoors are potentially counterproductive.

"All the really bad people who are highly motivated to keep their stuff secret are going to use the encryption method that doesn't have a backdoor," Scott told FCW in October 2015.

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