March 15, 2017–Law enforcement agencies are enjoying a “golden age of surveillance” even as they suffer from the “going dark” problem associated with encrypted communications, according to a law enforcement official and a civil libertarian. John Lynch, chief of the Justice Department’s computer crime and intellectual property section, and Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, today agreed that the “golden age” and “going dark” concepts were both applicable to today’s law enforcement/technology ecosystem.
But the availability of more data does not necessarily help police and prosecutors in any particular case, Mr. Lynch noted during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It can be “frustrating” when people proclaim that law enforcement has lots of metadata to use for investigations, he said. “I can get a warrant for just this tiny slice of it, and if that doesn’t help me, I’m pretty much out of a case.”
More information is available to law enforcement agencies, but much of it is not useful, according to a third panelist, Rajesh De, a partner at Mayer Brown and former general counsel at the National Security Agency. “It is a golden age of surveillance because there’s a lot more information available,” Mr. De said. “On the flip side, sometimes when you want a specific e-mail or text to make a particular case, that’s the most frustrating moment.”
When authorities are unable to collect the specific bits of information they want, they tend to try to collect more data of all types, Mr. De said. “We need to think about the tradeoff.” Legislation mandating back doors in communications devices and services are not necessarily the answer, the panelists said, because end-to-end encryption is available worldwide and can’t be stopped by the laws of one nation. Even with legislation, law enforcement would still need the ability to hack into systems. “There is no solution to this problem,” Mr. Lynch said. “There’s nothing that’s going to send you back to the good old days of clamping copper wires onto something” to collect evidence. – Tom Leithauser, firstname.lastname@example.org