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Beyond the law: Are encrypted smartphones too private for the FBI?

The debate over personal privacy vs. national security took a new turn earlier this week as the director of the FBI criticized the advent of encrypted smart phones that allow users to keep data on their devices private. For more, Julia Angwin of ProPublica joins Alison Stewart.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    The debate over personal privacy versus national security took a new turn Thursday when the director of the FBI criticized Apple and Google for developing encrypted smartphones, devices he warned would allow people to place themselves beyond the law.

    For more about this, we're joined now by Julia Angwin. She's a senior reporter at ProPublica. So, Julia what are these companies doing that has the NSA so concerned?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Essentially the way to think of this is that they're allowing you to encrypt the equivalent of your hard drive. So, the way you have a home computer and you might want to encrypt your hard drive, now you have a hard drive on your phone and you can encrypt that.

    So, that means basically any information that's stored on your phone would now be secure and really unreadable by anyone who doesn't have your passcode.

    But it's worth pointing out that almost every bit of data I have on my phone is also replicated somewhere else. For instance, my emails might be stored on Google servers, or my photos might be backed up on iCloud. So all of that data, if it's somewhere else, most likely is obtainable by the FBI.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    So, if this data is readily available in other places, why is the FBI so upset?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    The FBI would of course like their job to be as easy as possible. I think all of us are slightly sympathetic to the idea that we want law enforcement to have as many tools as possible, but in this particular case we're talking about a very small subset of their data, which is the physical device.

    They have to come get your actual device from you and then they want to unlock that information, but in the end they are going to get that information. They have not yet presented an actual case where they would have failed to complete their investigation without this information.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    So, what is in it for these Silicon valley giants to up their game in privacy at this point?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    I think in the post-Snowden era they're realizing that they can use this as a marketing tool, which is, 'hey, I've got better privacies than you.' This is actually the first time that we have kind of seen a 'privacy war.' Apple came out with its encrypted default setting for your phone, and then immediately Google came out and said, 'we're doing the same thing.'

    To be fair, Google had offered the option earlier, but it wasn't a default. So, now they're kind of playing this race, which we usually see on things like camera-resolution and now we're seeing it on privacy. That might, maybe, usher in an era where people might start to compete on privacy features.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    It's interesting that Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, sort of distanced himself saying, 'we sell devices, not your data,' almost like a marketing tool.

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Right. Yes, absolutely. That's his differentiating point, which is Google is selling your data. I mean they're not selling it directly, but they're selling advertisers the ability to access information about you in order to target ads at you.

    That is their business model, and you don't pay Google anything, and I'm paying what seems ungodly amounts of money to Apple all the time.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Tell me a little bit about why this is different than any encryption that we've done before.

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    We've always had this idea that the data we store on our machine, which is generally in our home, is ours and it's secure, and if you want it, you're going to have to come and actually get that device and break into it. It's not that different it, but our phones we carry around with us and they do get sort of ceased in arrests, or whatever, and police would like to thumb through them and they often do have a search warrant for it.

    But they can once again get almost all of that information other ways. They can go to the cellphone carrier, for instance if they want to know who you and I are calling, we already know the NSA has long, handy logs of all of that. But let's say the local police don't have access to the NSA logs, they also can go to the local AT&T or Verizon with a search warrant and get it from them.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Julia Angwin from ProPublica, thank you so much.

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Thank you.

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