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Back Door in Encryption

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Astory that has disappeared off the front pages for the moment is the controversy over encryption on smart phones, but you may still read about this on the inside pages. Since their popular acceptance in this century, the smart phone has become absolutely central to the lives of many users, and with this, concerns over personal privacy.

Software maker Paraben Corporation created tools for law enforcement use such as the “Cellular Seizure Investigation Stick” that was billed as a tool for collecting and preserving evidence. This soon made a simple traffic stop or boarding an airplane a potential for losing important personal information. An officer could say, “Let me see your phone for a minute” and that is all it took for them to suck off all the contacts, call logs, emails, calendar, texts, web surfing history, photographs, passwords, and even files that had been deleted. And this was possible whether or not the phone had a password lock.

Tech-savvy smart phone owners were aware this was going on, so responding to consumer demand Apple and other smart phone manufacturers added encryption to their phones. This had always been available from third-party vendors, but having the manufacturers make it available with the phone made it convenient and simple for the average consumer to use if they chose to turn it on. A lot of consumers did, and law enforcement agencies around the world were not happy with this development. They were even more displeased later when more smart phones began to be sold with the encryption turned on by default. Now authorities had to get a court order and the assistance of the phone manufacturer to access all that data they had previously been able to just reach out and take.

Being a good citizen, Apple complied with court orders that soon created a months-long backlog of work. Apple then took the step of enabling unbreakable encryption to iOS9. This meant nobody could unencrypt a phone without its password—not the FBI and not Apple. The US government then attempted to evoke the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel Apple to create new software for their phones, without the secure encryption, for use in only one case of domestic terrorism. It did not help the FBI’s case that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. chimed in that his office alone has about 175 phones it might like to ship to Apple if the case was decided in favor of law enforcement.

The FBI dropped its case against Apple, stating that the assistance of Apple was no longer needed. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the US, UK, France, and other countries continue to propose legislation to require back doors in encryption or to outlaw the sale of smart phones with unbreakable encryption.

Even though now off the front page, the individual’s right to privacy, along with the tools that make it possible, is the legal issue of our times.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email


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