Encryption wars: The privacy debate raging in your smartphone

[Original Article : https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331100-600-encryption-wars-the-privacy-debate-raging-in-your-smartphone/]  OR RVHS Library The New Scientist (28 January 2017 Edition)

Author : Chris Baraniuk

Publication Date : 25 January 2017

Who should be able to see the data stored on your phone? The obvious answer – no one but you – is turning into a security nightmare

GABRIEL YEW was walking along a quiet residential street in north London when the police swiped his iPhone. He could only watch as an officer frantically tapped at the screen to unlock the secrets within.

It wasn’t the device the authorities were after – it was data. Yew was sentenced last November to five-and-a-half years in jail for his part in a huge fraud involving fake credit cards, in large part thanks to messages contained on his phone.

The case illustrates a problem exercising law enforcement and security agencies across the world. Increasingly, our personal devices store and exchange data in an encrypted form, so that only the user can make it readable, by tapping in a passcode or through fingerprint identification or some other means. That’s great for keeping personal information safe, say if our phone is lost or stolen. But it can also be a boon to criminals and terrorists.

And so we have entered the latest round in a long-running spat about how best to balance personal privacy and public security. This time, the focus is on the booming business of personal data encryption. While techies praise secure data for all, many politicians take a dimmer view. Legislation that would limit or perhaps even fatally undermine encryption has been discussed in many places, including the US. In the UK it might already exist, depending on how you interpret new laws.

The techniques people have used to keep private messages private have evolved over time (see “Code through the ages“), but the core idea of encryption remains the same. You convert plain text into gobbledygook so that only you, and anyone else you care to share your secrets with, can unscramble it.

Evidences mentioned :

  • Encryption became headline news early in 2016, when the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that it had failed to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a jihadist who together with his wife had killed 14 people in a centre for people with disabilities in San Bernardino, California, where they both worked. Investigators called on Apple to create a special verson of the phone’s operating system that would make it easier to crack a user’s passcode by trial and error. The company repeatedly declined, arguing it would compromise the security of all iPhones.
  • The German Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, reportedly wants to spend €150 million in an effort to crack WhatsApp’s encryption.

Point of Views :

  • The creation of back doors could be misused by the authorities or exploited by criminals or other nefarious third parties.
  • “Freedom isn’t free, freedom costs.” If state power is to be restrained, there will be costs in terms of civilian casualties.
    • Schemes to weaken cryptography put everyone at risk. If authorities are able to get in, bad guys would be able to do so too.
  • Some think that law-enforcement agencies should hone their skills by breaking encryption on a case-by-case basis.
    • FBI director James Corney admitted paying a private company $1.3 million to hack into the device for them. (Syed Farrok’s iPhone)


On one hand, encryption is crucial for the security of websites, financial transactions and corporate enterprises. On the other, we share a desire to be kept safe.


Post by : Tze Sheng


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