US government court-sanctioned wiretaps were sometimes defeated by encryption, according to official figures on law enforcement eavesdropping released this week.
State police were unable to circumvent the encryption used by criminal suspects in nine cases last year, while plain text was recovered in 32 of 41 cases where use of cryptography was a factor last year. By comparison, law enforcement was stymied by crypto in four cases during 2012.
Prior to two years ago, crypto had never prevented cops from snooping on a criminal suspect, Wired reports. Crypto had been used by criminal suspects in cases dating back as early as 2004 but its use had never been successful until much more recently.
Federal and state police snooped on US suspects’ phone calls, text messages, and other communications 3,576 times in 2013, an increase of five per cent from 2012. This means that crypto was a factor in just one in 100 cases. The vast majority of investigations (87 per cent) involved drugs.
Only one wiretap application in a domestic criminal case was denied during the whole of 2013.
Most court orders covered the interception of mobile phone or pager traffic. The average length of an order was 40 days.
US and British intel agencies and the FBI have warned that the internet was liable to "going dark" because of the wider use of cryptography by criminal and terrorist suspects in the wake of the Snowden leaks. This dystopian scenario has failed to play out as predicted, at least on the basis of these figures.
This report omits data on interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, so it doesn't cover the work of the NSA. That also means that the figures are skewed towards the use of wiretaps in investigating conventional crimes rather than national security or terrorism-related investigations, where the use of crypto might be expected to figure as a factor more frequently.
The cost of surveillance is falling, possibly due to advances in technology as much as anything else. The average cost of intercept devices in 2013 was $41,119, down 18 per cent from the average cost in 2012. For federal wiretaps the average cost in reported cases was $43,361, a 25 per cent decrease from 2012.
A total of 3,744 individuals had been arrested (one more than in 2012), and 709 persons had been convicted (up 56 percent from 2012) as a result of communication interceptions, the report concludes. ®