FBI worried about criminals having ‘unfettered’ access to encryption technology

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Officials suggest restrictions to state-of-the-art digital cloaking; former lawman suggest more proeactive approach, instead

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — El Paso’s new FBI chief is worried about an old problem: advances in encryption technology that may allow criminals to plot or commit crimes with impunity.

“Something that concerns not just the FBI but all law enforcement is what we call ‘lawful access.’ Technology companies are deploying encryption software in which the customer can encrypt and only (they) and the end-user can access,” said Luis M. Quesada, special agent in charge of the El Paso Field Office as of this month.

Encryption is useful when it comes to protecting private information like banking, he said, but unrestricted use of this technology could pose a threat to the public. “It means we couldn’t follow kidnappings, child pornography, terrorist acts … the lone terrorist shooters which usually communicate through (digital) platforms,” he said.

One example cited is the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting, in which a gunman killed 26 people and left 20 others injured at First Baptist Church. The shooter’s phone was encrypted and police didn’t at the time have the technology to find out if he had co-conspirators.

“We want to know if the shooter was communicating with somebody else, if he was being radicalized. It could lead us to somebody else to prevent the next event. Or if we arrest a child pornographer we’d like to know who he’s communicating with so we have a map of who he’s (talking to) and save more kids,” Quesada said. He suggested the problem could be addressed through legislation of these technologies.

Quesada’s comments on Tuesday echoed concerns expressed in July by Attorney General William P. Barr and, more recently, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). Some of it centers around Facebook’s plan to provide state-of-the-art encryption on messages in all of its platforms, but concerns other companies’ applications as well.

At the July technology conference at Fordham University, Barr noted that one Mexican drug cartel was using WhatsApp as its privacy communication method to keep U.S. authorities from finding out when the next fentanyl shipment would be sent across the border.

Efforts to curb unfettered access by the general public to encrypted technology go back to the Obama administration and further. Back in 2015, then-FBI Director James B. Comey warned the Senate Judiciary Committee that “malicious actors” could take advantage of Web technology to plot violent crimes, steal private information or sexually abuse children. Back then the catchphrase wasn’t “lawful access”, but instead “going dark.”

Former El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief Victor M. Manjarrez said law-enforcement officials have been fighting criminals’ use of technology since the days of two-way handheld radios.

“We came across encrypted radios used by drug traffickers in Southern Arizona in the early 2000s. You could hear them talking but couldn’t (make out) the words,” he said.

Manjarrez, now associate director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso, said even if Congress “were actually cooperative with each other” and restricted encrypted technology, organized criminals will eventually find a way to defeat it.

“The problem is that technology changes so fast that transnational criminal organizations can overcome obstacles much quicker than we can change or legislate policy,” he said.

Manjarrez said the only way law-enforcement agencies can prevent crimes shielded by technology is to be proactive.

“Law-enforcement by nature is reactive. At some point we need to decide we have to be proactive. … Just like the Department of Defense in terms of counterterrorism, they seek out the threats. At some point, I think, we’ll have to accept that in law enforcement,” he said.

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