Secret memo reveals Uncle Sugar’s strategy to hack cellphones

Silicon Valley celebrated last fall when the White House revealed it would not seek legislation forcing technology makers to install “backdoors” in their software — secret listening posts where investigators could pierce the veil of secrecy on users’ encrypted data, from text messages to video chats. But while the companies may have thought that was the final word, in fact the government was working on a Plan B.

In a secret meeting convened by the White House around Thanksgiving, senior national security officials ordered agencies across the U.S. government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure consumer devices, including Apple’s iPhone, the marquee product of one of America’s most valuable companies…

The approach was formalized in a confidential National Security Council “decision memo,” tasking government agencies with developing encryption workarounds, estimating additional budgets and identifying laws that may need to be changed to counter what FBI Director James Comey calls the “going dark” problem: investigators being unable to access the contents of encrypted data stored on mobile devices or traveling across the Internet. Details of the memo reveal that, in private, the government was honing a sharper edge to its relationship with Silicon Valley alongside more public signs of rapprochement.

The public got its first glimpse of what those efforts may look like when a federal judge ordered Apple to create a special tool for the FBI to bypass security protections on an iPhone 5c belonging to one of the shooters in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has vowed to fight the order, calling it a “chilling” demand that Apple “hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers.” The order was not a direct outcome of the memo but is in line with the broader government strategy…

Security specialists say the case carries enormous consequences, for privacy and the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, and that the National Security Council directive, which has not been previously reported, shows that technology companies underestimated the resolve of the U.S. government to access encrypted data…

Silicon Valley and Washington have had a decades-long distrust of each other over encryption, stemming from a failed Clinton administration push in the 1990s for a government backdoor in telecommunications networks. In that case, the National Security Agency developed a technology called the Clipper Chip, which the White House approved as a government standard. Security experts assailed it as insecure and a violation of privacy.

Security experts say the U.S.’s insistence on finding ways to tap into encrypted data comes in direct conflict with consumers’ growing demands for privacy.

“The government’s going to have to get over it,” said Ken Silva, former technical director of the National Security Agency and currently a vice president at Ionic Security Inc., an Atlanta-based data security company. “We had this fight 20 years ago. While I respect the job they have to do and I know how hard the job is, the privacy of that information is very important to people…”

The truly stupid part of this government pressure is that it is exactly counter to public policy towards other nations. The White House and Congress blather all the time about any other nation that threatens to require the same access to tech products our federal snoops say they need.

You can’t have it both ways.

Admittedly the hubris of our government spies is nothing new. And given the paranoid spy mentality, when some other nation breaks into the same backdoors Uncle Sugar demands – if our federal alphabet snoops succeed – they’ll simply swear it must have been foreign spies who stole our wondrous technology. No one in government is going to take responsibility for building in the flaw that breaks privacy.

2 thoughts on “Secret memo reveals Uncle Sugar’s strategy to hack cellphones

  1. Antigonish says:

    “State police forces and highway patrols in the US have spent millions on Israeli phone cracking Tech” http://motherboard.vice.com/read/us-state-police-have-spent-millions-on-israeli-phone-cracking-tech-cellebrite (part of a Motherboard mini-series on the proliferation of phone cracking technology, the people behind it, and who is buying it – see link) “…Cellebrite, an Israel-based firm, sells tools that can pull data from most mobile phones on the market, such as contact lists, emails, and wiped messages. Cellebrite’s products can also circumvent the passcode locks or other security protections on many current mobile phones. The gear is typically used to gather evidence from a criminal suspect’s device after it has been seized, and although not many public examples of abuse are available, Cellebrite’s tools have been used by non-US authorities to prosecute dissidents. Previous reports have focused on federal agencies’ acquisition of Cellebrite tools. But as smartphones have proliferated and increasingly become the digital center of our lives, the demand and supply of mobile forensics tools has trickled down to more local bodies.”

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