2015 Wiretap Report: No wiretap denied, encryption rarely encountered

Encryption is not the scary ‘going dark’ devil the government makes it out to be as it was rarely encountered during wiretaps conducted in 2015.

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DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

The United Nations Humans Rights Council regards internet access as a basic human right, having passed a non-binding resolution (pdf) condemning countries which intentionally take away citizen’s internet access.

Although more than 70 countries committed to addressing “security concerns on the internet in accordance with their obligations to protect freedom of expression, privacy and other human rights online,” 17 countries wanted an amendment added that would strike freedom of expression from the resolution. Those 17 countries were Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Cuba, Congo, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

At the end of the day, the resolution is just a non-binding piece of paper and some countries will continue to censor access to certain sites. Private Internet Access pointed out that it remains to be seen which countries will actually pass laws “to guarantee freedom of expression on the internet as a basic human right.”

2015 Wiretap Report: None denied, encryption rarely encountered

Some people believe both anonymity and encryption are also basic human rights which are essential for freedom of expression. Yet the U.S. and other governments claim encryption is the very devil causing surveillance efforts to go dark; something a Harvard report thoroughly debunked – it even showed how insecure devices connected to the Internet of Things make surveillance easier than ever.

If you look at the newest Wiretap Report, then the latest crypto war could leave you scratching your head because out of the 4,148 total U.S. wiretaps in 2015, a mere 13 encountered encryption. The number of state “wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 22 in 2014 to 7 in 2015” and six federal wiretaps encountered encryption.

Motherboard was told the reason the number is so low is allegedly because the feds “now recognize when they are likely to encounter encryption and do not waste their time on fruitless endeavors.” Although the report said four of the six federal wiretaps which encountered encryption could not be decrypted, the FBI insisted that from October 2015 to March 2016, about 4,000 devices were submitted for digital forensic analysis and 500 couldn’t be cracked.

Sadly, not even one wiretap application was reported as denied in 2015 – which had 17 percent more wiretaps than in 2014. Federal judges authorized 1,403 wiretaps and state judges authorized 2,745 wiretaps. Most of those, 96 percent, targeted “portable” devices – a category which included cell phone communications, apps and text messages. Phone wiretaps made up 94 percent of the intercepts in 2015 and “the majority” targeted cell phones.

“Drug offenses” were the mostly frequently cited investigations using wiretaps. While 30 days was the average length of the original wiretap authorization, “3,297 extensions were requested and authorized in 2015, an increase of 115 percent from the prior year.”

54 of the authorizations were for “roving” wiretaps; if the prosecutor could show probable cause that the perp being investigated would try to thwart interception, then roving wiretaps would “target specific persons by using electronic devices as multiple location rather than at a specific telephone or location.”

Wiretaps were installed for an average of 43 days; this too was up nine days over the average in 2014. On a federal level, South Carolina had the most intercepts, a whopping “81,122 messages over 300 days, including 35,402 incriminating interceptions.” Arizona had the most state interceptions with “412,298 cell phone conversations, of which 15,566 were incriminating.”

ZDNet said to keep in mind that the 2015 Wiretap Report doesn’t even take into account the 1,457 classified national security requests submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – none of which were rejected either.

So while the UN may regard internet access as a basic human right to protect privacy and freedom of expression, we aren’t likely to see most nations get behind encryption as a form of freedom of expression that protects privacy. It will still be portrayed as the devil by some governments – even though it clearly isn’t the scary ‘going dark’ problem we are told it is. Especially when you consider that in the U.S., all Johnny Law needs to do is eavesdrop on phone conversations and intercept plain-text messages.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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