In another heated plea against end-to-end encryption, the FBI is indicating that Google and Apple could be inadvertently helping ISIS.
The controversial debate is nothing new, but it's gaining new dimensions with each passing day. Michael Steinbach, the FBI's assistant director of counterterrorism, is attempting to convince Congress that technology companies should "prevent encryption above all else."
At a hearing before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, Steinbach detailed how the Bureau relies on technology to track and intercept ISIS supporters in the Middle East, as well as other parts of the world. Intercepting communication between ISIS supporters could allow them to counter terrorist actions — but encryption shuts the FBI out.
The FBI finds it extremely difficult to intercept communication if encrypted channels are involved, which creates a "dark space" that the authorities' surveillance methods cannot penetrate. Given these circumstances, Steinbach is urging technology companies that build encryption products to adjust their privacy terms. He added that there are more than 200 social media companies — some of which build their services around end-to-end encryption.
"As a communication medium, social media is a critical tool for terror groups to exploit," Steinbach warned.
According to the FBI, when ISPs or social media sites decide to bake in software encryption with end-to-end encryption, not even they can access the information. Even if the FBI does serve the company with a court order to turn over the information, they cannot do so because it's encrypted to all except the sender and the recipient.
Consequently, the FBI intercepts encrypted communications it cannot access. The Bureau is therefore asking these companies to develop solutions for avoiding encryption. Steinbach said the FBI is not asking for encryption products to come with a built-in "back door" — but a technological solution is still necessary to allow authorities to conduct "lawful collection."
Where do Google and Apple come in?
Both Apple and Google, as well as a number of other companies, are supporting encryption and fighting efforts to allow the government access to communication conducted over their services.
Back in May, Apple, Google and other technology companies joined forces in an open letter asking the Obama administration to protect strong encryption despite pressure from the FBI and other such government agencies. In the letter, the companies argued that including vulnerabilities into their encryptions so the government could access encrypted data would compromise much more.
Encryption is either unbreakable to all, including legal authorities, or vulnerable to all, including hackers.