Encryption technology: Hurting and helping criminals

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) -Technology used to keep personal emails and other data from being hacked by criminals is also helping criminals evade law enforcement tactics of gathering evidence.

Many facebook users may not have realized it, but the social networking giant has recently introduced an encryption option that makes it harder for wrongdoers to access personal emails.

"Encryption is necessary for security," is a quote from Bryan Field.

The 22-year old is considered by many to be a computer expert. At age 14, Field was already certified as computer programmer. Fields is a systems administrator for Chattanooga Software Center; a Saint Elmo based computer business that designs software for businesses. In other words, fields knows all about encryption.

"Encryption is when you take a message you make it illegible. You need the original key and mathematical equation or encryption method used to turn it back into the original message," field said.

Using the encryption feature may ease concerns of facebook users that their messages won’t get hacked into.

Facebook’s encryption feature comes after Apple introduced encryption options on it’s devices. Both companies are taking a stance to protect customers from hackers. 

But the same technology which is keeping criminals from accessing personal data is also helping criminals hide incriminating evidence.

GBI agent Beth Messick is assigned to cyber crimes. She said encryption technology is making it harder for law enforcement to gather evidence.

"From a law enforcement perspective, it it is hampering us from getting access to information on the person," Messick said.

When WDEF contacted Messick about the facebook encryption, she was was just learning about the new feature. However, she  was fully aware and concerned about the encryption software that is now being added to iphones and other Apple devices that have been used by criminals to hide evidence.

"In the past, we’ve been able to send these devices to Apple with a subpoena and search warrant and they were able to actually break the encryption for us. Now Apple is not able to actually bypass the encryption either," Messick said.

Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Merritt is also assigned cyber crimes. According to Merritt, encryption devices are also impacting many of his investigations into crimes against children.

"I run into this problem bi-weekly. It not only effects crimes against children but general crimes as well, Merritt said.

But encryption is not 100-percent guaranteed. Field told WDEF that a flaw in the encryption design or letting the wrong person know the encryption key can leave the door open for hackers.

For law enforcement, other options of obtaining evidence are still on the table.

"If we don’t get it off the device, maybe they have used another device that is not password protecting or something like that so it requires us to really be just as creative as the bad person," Messick said.

Categories: Crime, Local News, Technology

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