Another battle between tech companies and the government may be brewing following the attack in Orlando last week.
On Monday, the FBI acknowledged it has Omar Mateen’s smartphone. It is uncertain what kind of smartphone Mateen had, but photos he posted to social media show an Android. It is also uncertain if the alleged terrorist’s phone was encrypted.
Android phones are easier to crack than iPhones. The phones are not encrypted by default like the iPhone 5C law enforcement say alleged San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook owned. Farook’s phone and the inability to gain access to it by law enforcement resulted in a legal battle between tech giant Apple and the government.
In February, a federal judge in New York ruled Apple did not have to unlock an iPhone in a drug probe. It was predicted the ruling would influence the outcome of a battle waged by the Justice Department against the tech company in the San Bernardino case.
Apple responded to the FBI’s effort to unlock the phone and weaken security by hiring encryption industry legend Jon Callas. In addition to developing the OpenPGP standard, he also established Silent Circle and Blackphone, makers of secure communication tools and hardware, according to IT Pro.
Google introduced encryption on Android in 2011, but it was buried deep within a phone’s settings. 97% of Android phones have encryption as an option, but less than 35% of users get a prompt to initialize it when the phone is activated. The latest version of the Android operation system, Marshmallow, prompts for encryption and the OS is required on higher end phones like the Galaxy S7, but only 1.2% of Android phones run that version, according to Google.
Apple’s iPhone, on the other hand, is encrypted by default. “If a person walks into a Best Buy and walks out with an iPhone, it’s encrypted by default. If they walk out with an Android phone, it’s largely vulnerable to surveillance,” Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNN.
Android has a slight market share lead over iPhone. It currently runs on 105 million smartphones owned by Americans.
On Monday, presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said she would force tech companies to work with intelligence agencies.
“We already know we need more resources for this fight. The professionals who keep us safe would be the first to say we need better intelligence to discover and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be carried out,” Clinton said during a speech in Cleveland.
“That’s why I’ve proposed an ‘intelligence surge’ to bolster our capabilities across the board, with appropriate safeguards here at home.”
The safeguards Clinton mentioned will likely not include the ability of Americans to secure their phones with encryption.
Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility, writes that “encryption weakened by mandated backdoors would put all of us—the ordinary folks around the planet who increasingly depend upon encrypted data and communications systems to protect the most intimate aspects of our personal lives—at an enormous risk of exposure from data breaches and associated online and even resulting physical attacks, including via exploitation from foreign governments and terrorist groups themselves.”
Clinton did not mention encryption specifically, but it is well known the security technique is one of the last bastions standing in the way of total surveillance.
If everybody used encryption by default, the government wouldn’t be able to “tell the dissidents from the rest of the population,” writes security expert Bruce Schneier.
Government surveillance and bulk data collection are less about terrorism than the ability to monitor the population without restraint or warrant.
“Mass surveillance has, for the larger segment of the U.S. populace, become an integral facet in the illusory feeling of security. But does it serve any purpose at all—other than providing the Surveillance State a handy excuse for keeping tabs on anyone it chooses, while simultaneously quashing every one of our paltry remaining legal rights?” writes Claire Bernish.