LATE LAST WEEK, the privacy community scored a victory in a year-long battle over the future of encryption: In internal discussions, the White House quietly overruled law enforcement and intelligence officials, deciding that it won’t pursue a policy of pushing tech companies to put “backdoors” in their encryption that would allow government agencies to access decrypted private data. That’s going to make it harder for the FBI to access private data, but they’ve still got plenty of other ways in.
To judge by FBI director James Comey’s warnings to Congress and the public, last week’s decision pushes us one step closer to a world where police surveillance “goes dark,” encryption reigns supreme, and pedophiles and drug dealers enjoy perfect immunity from the cops. But before surveillance hawks prophesy doomsday or privacy doves celebrate, let’s remember: For better or for worse, encryption usually doesn’t keep determined cops out of a target’s private data. In fact, it only rarely comes into play at all.