Bitcoin and Encryption: A Race Between Criminals and the F.B.I.

Law enforcement also has an advantage when it gets ahold of digital devices. Despite claims from Apple, Google and even the Justice Department that smartphones are largely impenetrable, thousands of law enforcement agencies have tools that can infiltrate the latest phones to extract data.

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“Police today are facing a situation of an explosion of data,” said Yossi Carmil, the chief executive of Cellebrite, an Israeli company that has sold data extraction tools to more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies, including hundreds of small police departments across the United States. “The solutions are there. There is no real challenge to accessing the data.”

The police also have an easier time getting to data stored in the cloud. Technology companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft regularly turn over customers’ personal data, such as photographs, emails, contacts and text messages, to the authorities with a warrant.

From January 2013 through June 2020, Apple said, it turned over the contents of tens of thousands of iCloud accounts to U.S. law enforcement in 13,371 cases.

And on Friday, Apple said that in 2018, it had unknowingly turned over to the Justice Department the phone records of congressional staff members, their families and at least two members of Congress, including Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The subpoena was part of an investigation by the Trump administration into leaks of classified information.

Yet intercepting communications has remained a troublesome problem for the police. While criminals used to talk over channels that were relatively simple to tap — like phones, emails and basic text messages — most now use encrypted messengers, which are not.

Two of the world’s most popular messaging services, Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp, use so-called end-to-end encryption, meaning only the sender and receiver can see the messages. Not even the companies have access to their contents, allowing Apple and Facebook to argue that they cannot turn them over to law enforcement.