DOJ fears tech ‘zone of lawlessness’

Tech companies trying to lock government agents out of people's devices are helping to build a “zone of lawlessness,” a top Justice Department official warned on Tuesday

Leslie Caldwell, the department’s assistant attorney general for its criminal division, reiterated the Obama administration’s position that companies like Apple and Google ought to allow for police to gain access to people’s emails, photos and other documents.

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“We understand the value of encryption," she said at the State of the Net conference in Washington on Tuesday. "We understand the importance of security, but we’re also very concerned that there not be what I would call 'the zone of lawlessness,' where there's evidence that we could have lawful access to ... that we're prohibited from having because of a company's technological choices."

In recent months, top administration officials including President Obama have worried that technologies that automatically encrypt people’s phones and other devices are creating unnecessary barriers that make it harder for police to track down rapists, murderers and other criminals.

“To the extent that we’re not able to get access to that kind of evidence, that can be a very significant obstacle to us being able to successfully prosecute those kinds of crimes,” Caldwell said.

Officials don’t want any special backdoors into companies' systems, she added. However, she said that officials should be able to get a court order and then force Apple or another company to retrieve information on a locked device and then send it back to the government. Unlike previous iPhone versions, new models automatically lock out anyone except the user, preventing even Apple — or the FBI — from gathering information stored on the device.

Critics of the Obama administration’s demand to update the law say that allowing the U.S. government to gain access to people’s data would also make it possible for malicious hackers and foreign spies to steal people's information.

Caldwell dismissed those concerns, and said it shouldn’t matter what other countries want to do.

“In other areas of law enforcement, our rules and our access to evidence are not dependent on what China might want to do or what the law might be in China,” she said. “Here in the United States, we have a process whereby we can get this electronic evidence. ... From my vantage point, it shouldn’t matter that China may not have that same robust process.”

During her discussion on Tuesday, Caldwell also raised fresh alarms about the virtual currency bitcoin and the anonymous Internet browsing tool Tor, both of which officials say make it easier for hackers and criminals to hide their activity online.

“Tor obviously was created with good intention, but is a huge problem for law enforcement,” she said, while pointing to hidden Web outlets “where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire someone to kill somebody.”

To combat bitcoin, which people can use to send money back and forth anonymously online, Congress needs to update the U.S.’s anti-money laundering laws, she said.