Whose Phones Do the Police Bug?

A while ago the rumbling fuss about encrypted electronic comms heated up when Apple refused to undermine the security of their iPhones, even though the FBI wanted to learn what was stored on an iPhone belonging to a terrorist who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Ultimately the police got what they wanted through an alternative route: they employed an Israeli security business to hack into the phone instead. Back then the fervid media speculation focused on the need to protect people from violence, but a recent article by technology and civil liberties analyst Ryan Hagemann helpful resets any imbalance in our thinking about why and when the police conduct surveillance. Reviewing the US Courts Wiretap Report for 2014, Hagemann pointed out that the police rarely ask for wiretaps in order to catch murderers. In fact, wiretaps are mostly authorized to support the investigation of suspected drug dealers. As the report states:

The majority of wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 66 percent of intercepts in 2004 (1,308 applications) and 89 percent in 2014 (3,174 applications).

The trends are clear. The total number of wiretaps requested and authorized more than doubled between 2004 and 2014. That rise can be wholly explained by the use of wiretaps for narcotics investigations. The number of wiretaps issued to investigate homicide and assault also went up, from 48 in 2004 to 135 in 2014, but this is dwarfed by the use of wiretaps to spy on suspected drug dealers. And in case you are wondering, it is a rare year when even a single wiretap request is refused by the courts.

I have no wish to state an opinion about which kinds of crime merit police surveillance. But I think it is worth keeping this kind of data in mind when judging who has the power to spy on communications, and how they use it. Some American politicians argue that legislation that was justified by the need to fight terrorism has disproportionately been used to tackle other kinds of crimes, especially the sale of illegal drugs, and that the result has a skewed impact on which racial groups are most likely to be brought to trial and imprisoned. Whether that argument is right or wrong, the central thrust is clear: the reasons given for why law enforcement need surveillance powers may not match the way those powers are used in practice.

As Hagemann indirectly observes, drug dealers are the criminals with most to gain from preserving hard encryption. Maybe you would agree that law enforcement agencies like the FBI need backdoors to be able to counter drug crime, as well as murder. But that is a different argument from the one which focused specifically on the risks relating to the San Bernardino terror attack, and reminds us that when encryption is broken, nobody can safely rely upon it again.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.