Article Lead Image

Apple iMessage encryption reportedly thwarted DOJ investigation

The new war over encryption has a new battle.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Sep 8, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:41 am CDT

Law enforcement now have a concrete example to support their claims that encryption can make the world a more dangerous place.

Apple rejected demands from the U.S. Justice Department to turn over the text messages of two suspected criminals this summer because iMessages are encrypted, so it was impossible for the Silicon Valley giant to comply.

The lack of compliance led top American law-enforcement officials to consider taking Apple to court, the New York Times reported. That option was not taken but remains on the table for future incidents.

Apple’s decision to encrypt iMessages prompted a long and public battle of words this year between the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, and government officials like FBI Director James Comey.

“Weakening encryption or taking it away harms good people who are using it for the right reason.”

Encryption encodes information, like iMessages, emails, or files, so that only the intended recipients can read it. When encrypted, communications and computer code of all kinds are rendered as gibberish by powerful algorithms except to those who possess the decryption key.

Since Edward Snowden revealed some of the vast surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency, Internet users around the world are using encryption tools with greater frequency than ever before.

The rise of encryption is not limited to the U.S., however. Increased surveillance capabilities from countries like China, Iran, and the United Kingdom is also driving popular adoption.

Big companies like Apple and Google—both of which were commercial partners of the NSA‘s surveillance programs—reacted to rising market demand and made strong encryption default on more of their products.

When strong encryption is enabled, companies cannot comply with court orders to access a users’ communication because the companies don’t have the decryption keys, making it impossible for them to do so.

Cook called the idea of encryption backdoors—intentional weaknesses in the encryption code—”incredibly dangerous” to the security of all devices and their users, a sentiment long expressed by technical experts.

“So let me be crystal clear: Weakening encryption or taking it away harms good people who are using it for the right reason,” Cook said in June of this year

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has emphatically disagreed in congressional hearings throughout the years.

Uninhibited encryption aids terrorists by providing them “a free zone by which to recruit, radicalize, plot, and plan” online, Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division, testified at a hearing for the House Homeland Security Committee.

The battle over encryption is just beginning, as made evident by the rhetoric of heightened urgency coming from both sides of the debate.

On one hand, law enforcement warn that terrorists and criminals will “go dark” as encryption becomes more common. On the other, advocates argue that the very foundation of Internet users’ privacy and security is at stake if law enforcement gets the backdoors it wants.

An unnamed government official appears to have told the Times that, despite the escalating war of words, “Apple and other companies had privately expressed willingness to find common ground.”

H/T New York Times | Illustration by Max Fleishman 

Share this article
*First Published: Sep 8, 2015, 10:29 am CDT