DEA memo provokes Apple privacy debate

The US Drug Enforcement Agency has been accused of messing with Apple fanboy’s heads by pretending that it cannot read their iMessages.

Last week Cnet got its paws on a “leaked” Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) memo suggesting that messages sent via Apple’s own iMessage system were untappable and were “frustrating” law enforcement.

The memo moaned that encryption used in Apple’s iMessage chat service had stymied attempts by federal drug enforcement agents to eavesdrop on suspects’ conversations.

It seemed that a February 2013 criminal investigation was affected and the DEAwarns that because of the use of encryption, “it is impossible to intercept iMessages between two Apple devices” even with a court order.

This meant that CNet was effectively providing proof that Apple’s product was so superior that it had law enforcement unable to match it. The implication is that if you wanted true privacy you should buy an iPhone. CNet has been doing this sort of thing a lot lately. Recently it ran a story celebrating the three year milestone (sic) for the iPad along with links to where you can buy one.

But there were some faulty logic in the memo. It implied that Apple had some brilliant security which even the Feds could not crack and it also implied that Jobs’ Mob did not have control over its own network.

It is true that Apple boasts of “end-to-end encryption” but Apple itself holds the key because it means that when you boot up a new iOS device, you automatically get access to your old messages.

This means that Apple is storing those messages in the cloud and can decrypt them if it needs to.

What the email really only suggests that law enforcement can’t get those messages by going to the mobile operators. It says nothing about the ability to get those same messages by going to Apple directly. And, in fact, in many ways iMessages may be even more prone to surveillance, since SMS messages are only stored on mobile operators’ servers for a brief time, whereas iMessages appear to be stored by Apple indefinitely.

According to Tech Dirt the memo appears to have been leaked to CNet to falsely imply that iMessages are actually impervious to government snooping. But Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute comes up with two plausible theories.

The first is that this is part of the feds’ effort to convince lawmakers to make it mandatory that all communications systems have backdoors for wiretapping and the other is that it’s an attempt to convince criminals that iMessages are safe, so they start using them falsely believing their messages are protected.