Figures published this month suggest fewer Americans are using encryption to secure their communications – but if you look into the detail, the opposite is probably closer to reality.
The latest Wiretap Report from the US courts system – which counts up the number of requests from investigators to spy on people's chatter in 2015 – declares:
The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 22 in 2014 to 7 in 2015. In all of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages.
Six federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2015, of which four could not be decrypted.
In all of the chatter intercepted by cops and g-men, encryption thwarted investigators fewer than a dozen times, we're told. This has been highlighted by privacy hand-wringers who say that – woe – no one is using strong encryption to shield them from the government's prying eyes.
Terrorists really aren't going dark. No need for politicians to cripple encryption: no one's using it.
However, elsewhere in the report:
The most frequently noted location in wiretap applications was “portable device.” This category includes cell phone communications, text messages, and application software (apps). In 2015, a total of 96 percent (3,969 wiretaps) of all authorized wiretaps were designated as portable devices.
So the vast majority of intercepted communications involved smartphones. And later, crucially:
The three major categories of surveillance are wire, oral, and electronic communications. Table 6 presents the type of surveillance method used for each intercept installed.
The most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile). Telephone wiretaps accounted for 94 percent (2,578 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2015, the majority of them involving cellular telephones.
So the vast majority of wiretaps involved not encrypted text messages and app traffic, but telephone calls – which we all know the Feds have the keys to. If you look at the aforementioned table six, you'll see pretty much every spying request involved listening in on normal phone calls.
There was basically little or no attempt made to request permission to snoop on encrypted communications, presumably because the Feds knew it would be a waste of time to ask a judge to sign off on it and carry out the surveillance. If anything, this suggests encrypted communications is working – federal and state investigators who need warrants to spy on people are giving up on crypto-secured natter. It's not worth the time.
And, if anything, it suggests why the Feds are so keen to backdoor encryption systems: then they can get their hand on people's conversations.
And this is separate to the likes of the NSA, which are military, have untold capabilities, and not included in the above numbers. The more you know. ®