Encryption helps everyone, including criminals, and that’s O.K.

Digital freedom
5 mins
encryption actually helps police

This post was originally published on September 8, 2015.

Earlier this month, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and three other officials wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times accusing Apple and Google of “blocking justice” with smartphone encryption. They cite the murder of Ray Owens, in which a locked iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge were found next to the body. The article claims both phones were encrypted with the user’s passcode as the only key, meaning Apple and Google couldn’t comply with a court-ordered decryption even if they wanted to. And that, says Vance, is helping Owens’s killer stay at large.

Put aside the fact that the Galaxy S6 Edge isn’t encrypted by default. And forget for a moment that less than 0.1 percent of all cases handled annually by the Manhattan DA even involve encrypted iPhones (as revealed to Wired). Let’s give Vance the benefit of the doubt and assume that smartphone encryption actually does help criminals.

How Encryption Helps Criminals

When you lock your iOS 8 device with a passcode, it’s not just locked, it’s encrypted. The data inside isn’t even really your data anymore; it’s a twisted jumble of code that only your passcode can untangle. So even if someone were to steal your phone, break it open, snap off the memory chips, and reroute the data into their own computer, they’d still see nothing but digital jibberish.

It’s not hard to see why that’s good news for criminals. If you have a history of breaking the law, your phone is likely a treasure trove of evidence that could put you behind bars, should it fall into the wrong hands. A few years ago you might have had to make do with disposable prepaid cell phones aka “burners” to keep your communications secret. But thanks to full-disk encryption, you can now deal drugs, kill people, kidnap children, and safely enjoy your favorite podcasts and all the other bells and whistles of the latest Apple device.

What a time to be alive!

How Encryption Hurts Criminals

The problem with that line of reasoning is it ignores the innumerable benefits of full-disk encryption to law-abiding citizens, including the police themselves. Kevin Bankston from Slate is quick to point out how default encryption will render useless the entire premise of smartphone theft, a crime committed millions of times every year. That’s millions of sheets of paper that won’t end up on investigators’ desks, freeing up millions of hours to work on solving more serious cases.

Encryption also deters financial theft. A study from Symantec revealed 95 percent of people who recovered “lost” phones went straight for personal online information like banking and email, and only half of them tried to return them to their rightful owners. Encryption would have rendered any further crime completely impossible. In a world where smartphone encryption is enabled by default, finding a lost phone full of bank credentials would be equivalent to finding a small glass case full of shredded hundred dollar bills.

Meanwhile, only 74 cases out of 100,000 that came through the Manhattan DA’s office last year had anything to do with an encrypted iPhone, and there’s no indication the encryption even significantly obstructed any investigations.

Is Encryption Like Firearms?

Encryption is a powerful tool, and just like all powerful tools we wish it could belong to all of the good guys and none of the bad guys. Thus it’s tempting to draw a parallel between this debate and the one over gun control.

More Like a Bulletproof Vest

For one, encryption is clearly more about defense than assault. A better metaphor would be a shield. Should we also outlaw bullet-proof vests because criminals could use them during shootouts with the police? We could mandate that all bullet-proof vests have a “backdoor” that allows special police bullets to penetrate it. Obviously these special bullets would only be used by the police in times of emergency … surely that would keep all of us more secure, unless criminals managed to get their hands on police bullets, or on bullet-proof vests that don’t have backdoors. Okay… maybe that’s not such a great idea after all. (Steve Weis, software engineer at Facebook, makes a similar point in a satirical rebuttal to Vance’s Times piece entitled “When Curtains Block Justice”.)

Millions and Millions of Copies for Everyone!

Another difference is that encryption is software, and it doesn’t cost anyone any money to make copies. Banning guns would make it harder for criminals to acquire them, but encryption technology is already freely available, and that’s never going to change. As former head of Homeland Security and former outspoken opponent of encryption Michael Chertoff told journalists earlier this year, “That genie is not going back in the bottle”. The truth is that encryption is simply a powerful defensive tool and it’s here to stay.

Brave New World

If the thought of evidence stored on murder victims’ encrypted devices dying with their owners still bothers you, consider the evidence stored in a victim’s head. That’s a logistical limitation that forensics has always had to deal with, and no one has thought to complain thus far. What if law enforcement had the power to download memories from a dead person’s brain on the grounds that it might contain evidence? Would society consent to that “backdoor”?

Police need to get used to the fact that everyone has the right to own their own data in the same way they own their own thoughts and ideas. Encryption is making that metaphor a reality, for better and for worse. But as all the facts and figures have shown, it’s mostly better.

Still Not Convinced?

Smartphone encryption protects everyone. Even you! If you’re still on the fence, take a look at our infographic for more information on the pros and cons of encryption and lock your phone today.

smartphone-data-encryption-police-infographic (1)



Featured image: iampixels / Dollar Photo Club