Business Technology

Saturday 20 January 2018

A future where tech giants won't crack despite data pressure

Paul Durov, founder of secure messaging system Telegram, in Barcelona.
Paul Durov, founder of secure messaging system Telegram, in Barcelona.

Joseph Menn and Julia Love

The legal showdown between Apple and US law enforcement over encryption, no matter the outcome, will likely accelerate tech company efforts to engineer safeguards against government intrusion, tech industry executives say.

Already, an emerging industry is marketing super-secure phones and mobile applications.

An Apple executive said the company will strengthen its encryption if it wins its court battle with the federal government, which last week secured a court order requiring Apple engineers to help extract data from a phone associated with the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California.

The executive spoke on condition of anonymity. An Apple spokesperson declined to comment publicly.

If Apple loses the court case, the legal precedent could give the US government broad authority to order companies to assist in breaking into encrypted products.

But even a government victory could have unintended consequences for law enforcement, potentially prompting a wave of investment by US tech companies in security systems that even their own engineers can't access, said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University's Berkman Centre for Internet & Society. "A success for the government in this case may further spur Apple and others to develop devices that the makers aren't privileged to crack," he said.

The fast-growing online storage provider Box has already made it a priority to give customers sole custody of data, said Joel De la Garza, chief information security officer at the company. The intent is to make it impossible for the company to access its customers' data - even under a government order, he said.

"Our goal is to achieve a `zero-knowledge' state" for the company, he said, "where our customers have total control over their data."

It's unclear whether Apple can - or would even want to - make phones the company can't access. Two Apple employees familiar with the company's security strategy said the company had no such plans.

One immediate beneficiary of the US government's case against Apple is the niche industry that has sprung up to design apps and phones to thwart snooping by governments, business rivals and criminals.

In the more than two years since former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread spying via US companies, a handful of companies have released secure phones with names such as BlackPhone, RedPhone or Priv that trumpet security as a prime selling point.

Phones such as Boeing's Black target government customers. Blackberry markets the Priv, an Android device, to corporate clients seeking more security.

Others include Silent Circle, with launched its Blackphone 2 late last year, and Turing Robotic Industries, whose Turing Phone is due in April.

Many more apps, such as Signal and Wickr, encrypt calls or texts messages.

Telegram, the mobile messaging application popular for its security features, has surpassed 100 million users, the company's co-founder Pavel Durov told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The service is currently conveying 15bn messages a day, up from 12bn in September, Durov said. While that's less than the 45bn messages sent daily by the 1bn people on Facebook's rival messaging service WhatsApp, Durov said that given Telegram's smaller user base, its "engagement" was actually four times greater.

US law enforcement officials have long fought for new laws to maintain access to private information that is harder to capture as people move to digital devices from traditional phone lines - which by law must be tappable.

Most recently, the tech industry has fought off numerous efforts to get encryption legislation through Congress, including an attempt last year that died after President Obama declined to support it.

FBI Director James Comey has been particularly outspoken in arguing that law enforcement efforts are hobbled by encryption, which he calls a safe haven for terrorists.

Other law enforcement officials have said the tech industry fears are exaggerated, or in Apple's case, even a marketing ploy.

Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies also have accelerated efforts to implement encryption in the wake of Snowden's disclosures about US spying - including a program called Prism that culled private data from some of the largest US tech companies. The revelations prompted companies to fight the perception that they were arms of the government and dented the overseas sales of companies including Cisco and IBM as countries such as China shunned US products.

iPhones now have longer passcodes tied to underlying encryption, making them far harder to hack. Facebook's WhatsApp and others have adopted protocols under which they don't have the means to unlock user communications. (Reuters)

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