Encryption Has Foiled Wiretaps for First Time Ever, Feds Say

2 Jul

Photo: effschuler/Flickr

By David Kravets / Wired

For the first time, encryption is thwarting government surveillance efforts through court-approved wiretaps, U.S. officials said today.

The disclosure, buried in a report by the U.S. agency that oversees federal courts, also showed that authorities armed with wiretap orders are encountering more encryption than before.

The revelation comes as encryption has come front and center in the wake of the NSA Spygate scandal, and as Americans consider looking for effective ways to scramble their communications from the government’s prying eyes.

According to today’s report from the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts:

Encryption was reported for 15 wiretaps in 2012 and for 7 wiretaps conducted during previous years. In four of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. This is the first time that jurisdictions have reported that encryption prevented officials from obtaining the plain text of the communications since the AO began collecting encryption data in 2001.

Those figures are just a blip on the screen in the office’s 2012 Wiretap Report, which said there were 3,395 authorized wiretaps from federal or state judges. (The figures, a significant increase from 2011′s reported 2,732, do not account for those secretly authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is at the center of the Spygage firestorm.)

To be sure, the encryption numbers begin to highlight the government’s stated fear, and its propaganda railing against encryption — which is a standard feature on today’s Apple computers.

Consider that, when federal law enforcement officials were clamoring for legislation authorizing a backdoor into most all electronic communication methods during the President Bill Clinton administration, FBI Director Louis Freeh told Congress in 1997, “all of law enforcement is also in total agreement on one aspect of encryption. The widespread use of uncrackable encryption will devastate our ability to fight crime and prevent terrorism.”

Sixteen years later, and judging by the government’s own accounting, we’re not even close to Freeh’s fears becoming reality, despite the government’s continued push for a backdoor into virtually everything.

The report, meanwhile, said that 97 percent of the wiretaps issued last year were for “portable devices” such as mobile phones and pagers. About 87 percent of the wiretaps were issued in drug-related cases, the report said. Other equipment tapped included computers, phone land lines, fax machines and, among other things, microphones.

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