Most people who own smartphones or tablets are ignorant to the fact that the information that they have saved to those devices is easily accessible using simple technology tools, even if you use a pass code to lock access to your device. The passcode can be easily bypassed to get at the data on the devices, something that law enforcement does frequently when the get a court order to look at that information. Just like getting a warrant to search your house or car for evidence, law enforcement officials often get access to our computing devices for the same reason. That’s about to get harder, however, and law enforcement groups across the country, including the folks at Homeland Security, are not happy.
Last week, Apple and Google announced separately that future versions of their mobile devices would have encryption turned on by default, meaning that all the data on the device itself would be impossible to get to without the encryption key. The way encryption works is different than the simple passcode used to lock a device. Encryption uses very sophisticated algorithms to scramble the information stored on a device in such a way that only by using the encryption key that only you know can you get access to that information. Even Apple and Google can’t unscramble the data in a meaningful way. Maybe the NSA can break the encryption with their secret tools, but even that would take some time.
The technology companies are taking this step in response to the bashing they’ve been taking since the Edward Snowden revelations of last year. It seems like every week we learn about a new way that the U.S. government was tapping into our tech devices to spy on us and Apple and Google have had enough. Encryption for their devices has been available for some time, but it is optional and requires the user to turn it on and understand how to configure it. Now, when you get a new iPhone or Droid smartphone, it will come encrypted by default, asking you to enter an alpha numeric encryption key the first time you turn it on so that only you can get to your device.
Law enforcement officials are already sounding the alarm, raising concerns that criminals and terrorists will now have the ability to deny them access to critical information stored on those devices in the future. Homeland Security in particular is very concerned that terrorists, who use smartphones and tablets as much as anyone, will be able to thwart attempts to get at critical information. I suspect we’ll see a lot of law enforcement types in the news complaining about this new policy, but in reality it’s a smart move by Apple and Google.
Let’s face it, we use our smartphones and tablets to store tons of personal information, the sort of things that you don’t want anyone else to have access to. This about protecting privacy, not about empowering terrorists and criminals to avoid prosecution. Personally, I’ve encrypted all the portable devices I use, even the USB drives that I carry around with me to store data. I know that I may one day lose or misplace one of these devices and the last thing I want is someone snooping around the stuff I have stored there. We tend to take our privacy and security for granted most of the time but I think it’s time we started to doing something to protect ourselves before we become victims of identity theft.