Devin Kelley, the man who is suspected of murdering 26 people in a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a smartphone which was encrypted, and the FBI cannot get into it.
The news, which was confirmed by an FBI official at a press conference yesterday, is likely to reignite once again the debate over encryption and security in the USA. It is by no means the first time that the FBI has struggled to open a suspect’s smartphone.
Unknown phone, same old argument
It is not clear what type of smartphone the Texas shooter had, but the implication from the words of the FBI is that it is another iPhone.
“I don’t want to tell every bad guy out there what kind of phone to buy to harass our efforts on trying to find justice here,” explained Christopher Combs, the lead FBI agent in charge of the Texas case. “[But] with the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions, law enforcement — whether at a state, local or federal level — is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”
There no obvious reason to think that there is any information on Keeley’s phone which will directly affect the outcome of the FBI’s investigation. Evidence against him appears to be overwhelming, not least because he was chased from the scene and subsequently shot and killed by armed witnesses.
But just as this has been used by gun advocates in the USA as an argument in favour of more guns, so the fact that he owned an encrypted smartphone is being used as a reason why such encryption should be compromised. Little obvious logic has been applied to the argument, but rather it has been pointing out that this is an issue the FBI is facing more often.
The latest in a long line
The most notable case of this nature was that of the San Bernardino shooter who killed 14 people in a terror-related incident in the city. He owned an iPhone which was locked, and the FBI was unable to access it.
After taking Apple to court and securing an order which required the company to create software to unlock the device (which Apple refused to do), they eventually paid $1 million to an anonymous hacker who then proceeded to unlock the device.
There have been other such cases which, as far as we know remain unresolved. Speaking in the wake of the New York terrorist attack last week, US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions said that US authorities had around 7,500 such devices they were unable to access.
But despite throwing these numbers about, there has been little evidence presented in public as to why breaking the encryption of such devices would make American’s safer. The only real reason that seems to have been put forward is that it would make the job of the FBI easier. But this is scant reason to unlock the privacy that American citizens are entitled to with their private communications.
It is not just in the USA where this debate has been played out. In the UK, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has been at the vanguard of a similar campaign, despite by her own admission not actually understanding how encryption works.
Australia too has been pushing hard to legislate against encryption. All of this is despite the warnings of numerous experts about the damage that undermine encryption could cause.
Where do we go from here?
It remains to be seen how the issue of unlocked encrypted devices will play out in the USA. But it is not one that is going to go away.
“I can assure you that we are working very hard to get into the phone and that will continue until we find an answer,” said Agent Coombs. “I don’t know how long that is going to be. It could be tomorrow, it could be a week, it could be a month.”
Obviously, if the FBI is unable to find evidence of the passcode used by Kelley, they would have to find another way to access the device. They might choose to pay the same hacker who managed to access the San Bernardino iPhone again. Alternatively, they may develop their own technique for doing so.
But what seems most likely is further legal action and a battle of principals once again, between the FBI which is hell-bent on security at all costs, and Apple (or another smartphone manufacturer) which is committed to protecting the privacy of all its customers.