In his address to the American people last week, President Barack Obama urged high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape justice. It was acall to action after the San Bernardino attack, in which the terrorist shooters had tried to erase their digital footprint while using the Internet to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State.
There is no doubt that that the Islamic State is using social media to promote radicalization and foment terror without regard to geographic borders.
Ominously, however, Apple and Google are making it much easier for future terrorists to avoid detection. With new software, password-protected Apple and Android devices can be fully encrypted in a way that Apple, Google, and no law enforcement agency can crack.
That means the next terrorist attack somewhere in the world could be completely coordinated over Apple or Android devices, but when authorities get wind of the plot and obtain those devices they will recover … nothing.
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No evidence of when or where the attack might occur. No proof of what terror cell is helping to organize and finance the carnage. No data of how the plan fits into the larger war of terror against the West.
And the danger doesn’t stop with terrorism. Sometime soon a teenage girl will go missing. Panicked parents will call police. An Amber alert will be issued. Specially trained dogs will use her scent to try to track her. And police will find her cellphone, perhaps on her bedroom dresser. But it will be password protected.
No one will be able to access the girl’s emails, texts, voice mail messages, photos, and other data — all of which could lead to her location and her abductor—because it will all be on a fully encrypted Apple or Android device.
Apple and Google’s claims to protect user’s privacy won’t seem as comforting when their products are used to shroud the identities and evil acts of terrorists, child predators, drug kingpins and human traffickers.
As the president urged, tech companies like Apple and Google must act now to open up their devices to lawful searches. Such searches could only be carried out after a judge issues a search warrant finding probable cause to believe that a device contains evidence of a crime.
And if the tech companies won’t work cooperatively with law enforcement to make the searches possible, Congress must pass legislation to require it. The time to act is now because people’s lives are at stake.
Eric Zahnd is the Platte County prosecuting attorney and a member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association. He lives in Platte Woods.