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Why Is Encryption Such A Controversial Subject?


Many of today’s smartphones arrive out of the box with encryption functions. While that may mean privacy protections for smartphone users, it also means plenty of controversy over the use of encryption when it comes to hiding data from the government. Here’s why encryption is making headlines.

What is Encryption?

Encryption refers to scrambling digital information on phones, laptops, servers, or other electronic devices. On most smartphones, encryption means your photos, texts, emails, and other information are not readable unless you make them so by entering a password or code.

Have you ever forgotten your password or mistyped it, only to have your phone or tablet lock itself for minutes or longer? The idea behind encryption is that it protects your data from unauthorized use. Unfortunately, that does not seem to make law enforcement officials happy.

Encryption in Court

While most people are probably more concerned with keeping their photos and text messages private for personal reasons, encryption often comes up in modern criminal and other court cases.

Locked iPhone Prompts FBI Plea

The primary controversy over encryption began with a court case that involved an iPhone 5C in the center of the San Bernardino shooting. Syed Farook used a pin code to protect his encrypted iPhone, and without that code, officials couldn’t access Farook’s information.

After ten guesses at the passcode, officials would wipe the iPhone clear by default. That’s because Apple’s encryption protection ensures that the user’s information remains private. In this case, it remains private by disappearing forever.

Not surprisingly, Apple refused to help the government disable the auto-erase feature, CNET explained. Their reasoning? If they hack into the iOS platform and bypass the innate security measures, that could expose countless iPhone users to security breaches.

In contrast with data that users store in the “cloud,” data on a smartphone is inaccessible by the authorities and, theoretically, anyone else. Before iOS 8, Apple still had means of providing the authorities with some user information if said officials granted a warrant.

Now, however, Apple has initiated features which block them and anyone else from accessing encrypted user information. Android devices also feature such protections, although their separate processors and components require a different approach to security.

(Source: LA Times)

Passwords as Contents of the Mind

Another court case involved an iPhone 7 that investigators hoped to use as evidence against Katelin Eunjoo Seo, a woman accused of invasion of privacy, stalking, intimidation, and other charges. However, the defense declared that Seo’s password was the “contents of her mind,” and that disclosing the password was the same as hacking into Seo’s mind.

But the bigger question was whether the encryption on Seo’s iPhone would affect the prosecution’s ability to use the information at all. While one judge noted that the court hadn’t addressed the issue of encryption at length, one researcher highlighted the fact that decrypting data is similar to “recreating data,” a grey area when it comes to the court’s use of the information.

Policies on Encryption

While court cases continue to argue over the legality of “hacking” defendants’ cell phones for information, lawmakers are working on a bill that prevents companies from ratting out consumers.

The Secure Data Act aims to keep all law enforcement and surveillance agencies from forcing companies to use “backdoor entrances” on products and services, Digital Trends reported. While past court battles over phone encryption and privacy spurred contention over Apple and other companies’ policies, they also resulted in third-party agencies developing backdoor access methods of their own.

While Apple wanted to know how hackers managed to get around their protections, the judge refused to publicize the information. After all, encryption backdoors would pose a hazard to the data security of every smartphone user, eliminating the benefits of encryption in the first place.

Why is Encryption So Controversial?

The bottom line is that encryption is controversial because everyone wants their data protected but at the same time wants others to give up sensitive information. Courts want sensitive information that could decide someone’s guilt or innocence, but at what cost?

Personal privacy is becoming harder to achieve in today’s digital world. No matter what kind of smartphone or tablet you use, someone somewhere knows who or where you are and what you’re doing with it.

At the same time, there’s a tradeoff between sharing personal information for your personal gain. There’s also a tradeoff between personal privacy and public safety, as evidenced by the court cases surrounding iPhone encryption. Unfortunately, the controversy continues because consumers are not willing to give up the last shreds of privacy that encryption affords them.

With the pervasiveness of digital surveillance on your social media accounts, computer server, and Wi-Fi connections, you likely have an online presence that you’re only partly aware of. Doing away with encryption may make some people feel safer, but it also makes many feel more vulnerable.


PixelPrivacy.com is all about making the world of online security accessible to everyone. We pride ourself in writing guides that we’re certain even our own mothers could understand! Be sure to head over to our blog if you’re interested in keeping your private information just that: Private!

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