Going Dark? Federal Wiretap Data Show Scant Encryption Problems

The recent conflict between the Department of Justice and Apple over retrieving data from a locked iPhone has revived the debate over encryption and security in the United States. FBI Director James Comey argues that strong encryption techniques for secure communications and computing allow criminals to evade law enforcement by “going dark.” To overcome this purported problem, leaders in policy and law enforcement have called for new laws that would compel technology companies to build so-called “backdoors” into secure protocols for government access. However, few have considered the relevant empirical data required to perform a proper benefit-cost analysis.

Of the 32,539 total wiretap orders reported from 2001 to 2014, only 145, or 0.45 percent, involved encryption techniques. It was not until 2012 that law enforcement officials encountered encrypted communications that they were unable to decipher. Four such incidents occurred that year, followed by nine in 2013, and only two in 2014.

Given that only a miniscule portion of investigations that suffer from undecipherable encrypted communications, it is likely that criminal investigations can better be aided by targeting other more significant barriers that officers face or by further improving on law enforcement’s existing strengths.

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