Police investigations threatened as metadata retention feeds telephony diaspora

As new metadata retention laws drive many Australians to use secure messaging applications instead of conventional telephony services, the head of Interpol has warned that authorities' ability to properly investigate a broad range of crimes will be impacted unless software vendors reconsider the strength of the security they are providing.

Speaking in a recent TV interview, Wainwright told the BBC that investigations into a broad range of terrorist and other criminal activity were finding encrypted communications in common usage by criminals who were successfully hiding evidence of their criminal activities.

As that encryption became stronger and stronger, it had “changed the very nature of counter-terrorist work from one that has been traditionally reliant on having good monitoring capability of communications to one that essentially doesn't provide that anymore.”

Increasingly prevalent smartphone encryption and encrypted instant messaging apps had magnified the problem by blocking law-enforcement efforts, Wainwright said.

Such applications – which had come into broad usage as alternatives to mobile phones' SMS capabilities – have gained even more currency as a clampdown on online communications prompts many users to look for alternatives to avoid creating the metadata that the government will now be able to access for two years.

Despite his support for the Australian government's metadata retention laws, no less than communications minister Malcolm Turnbull also gave Australians a tip on avoiding them when he recently admitted he is a heavy user of secure messaging apps like Wickr and WhatsApp.

Those comments – which ironically came as a response to Attorney-General George Brandis being targeted by protestors over his push for metadata retention laws – highlighted the growing challenges faced by law-enforcement authorities for whom simply accessing communications is no longer sufficient for catching criminals.

Widespread use of the messaging apps had “disappointed” Wainwright, who called current laws “deficient” and said there needed to be a change to a “significant capability gap that has to change if we're serious about” limiting terrorists' online communications.

The US National Security Agency has been pushing for the legal right to intercept and read such communications, while British prime minister David Cameron recently said he may ban encrypted messaging apps unless the government gets the ability to decrypt such communications.

Doing so, however, would require co-operation from technology vendors that have been reluctant to be seen as assisting in government efforts to undermine the security of their products. Microsoft bristled at suggestions it had helped the NSA by inserting back doors in its products, reigniting sensitive discussions about collaboration with the NSA that had previously seen reports that the security agency helped Microsoft develop the security for its Windows Vista operating system as well as its predecessors Windows XP and Windows 2000.

FBI director James Comey is among those pushing for backdoors into smartphones – but he faces resistance from within the government he serves: concerns over government-forced back doors remain so great that in December a US senator introduced a bill that would prevent the government from forcing vendors to design back doors into their products to help their surveillance efforts.

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

Tags surveillancemetadataNational Security AgencyAttorney-General George BrandisCSO Australiametadata retentionTV interviewcounter-terroristthreatenedtelephony diasporaFBI director James ComeyPolice investigations

Show Comments