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Peoria Journal Star Op-Ed: Warrant-proof encryption threatens public safety

Courtesy of
John C. Milhiser, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois

As our society has become dependent on a vast and expanding digital infrastructure, it is not surprising that all types of criminal cases — white collar and elder fraud, child sexual exploitation, gun and drug traffickers and terrorism — are likely to include digital evidence.

One of the most critical advances in this cyber world is the development of advanced encryption techniques. Encryption provides enormous benefits to society, including safe-guarding personal information and facilitation of on-line commercial transactions. However, we must not allow dangerous criminals to cloak their communications and digital activities behind an impenetrable shield.

Digital evidence is of particular importance in investigating and prosecuting criminals who use cyberspace to exploit vulnerable children. Such cases include the production of child pornography in still images, videos and live-streamed content, as well as sharing and collecting such material. Perpetrators also use technology to entice minors to engage in illegal sexual activity. On-line child exploitation cases have increased dramatically in the past few years, with offenders continually adopting more sophisticated means in committing these heinous crimes and evading justice. In 2018 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline received more than 18 million reports which contained more than 23 million images and more than 22 million videos of child pornography. Law enforcement access to this information is critical in exposing criminal activity, locating victims, identifying perpetrators and protecting our children.

Central Illinois is not immune to these crimes. A Decatur man, Jason Cooper, is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison after being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Police received a report from a 13-year-old Riverton girl that a Facebook user “Jermaine Jackson” threatened to harm her and her family if she would not meet him to engage in sexual activity. Agents obtained a search warrant for the Facebook account, and based on the data that was obtained, they were able to quickly identify Cooper and his location. Significantly, agents were also able to identify a second victim, a New York girl, whom Cooper had been extorting to provide sexually explicit images for several years. This second victim had never reported the incidents to her parents and may never have been identified without access to digital evidence.

Popular messaging services and social media sites are moving to implement warrant-proof encryption that thwarts the ability of law enforcement to locate victims, identify those responsible for the criminal activity and successfully prosecute guilty parties. When warrant-proof encryption is utilized, digital messages can only be decrypted by end users. Thus, information produced by a service provider in response to a court-ordered warrant remains encrypted and inaccessible to law enforcement.

It is imperative to both the safety of the users and public safety that technology providers maintain an appropriate mechanism to allow law enforcement prompt access to encrypted information, whether stored on a device or in transmission, in compliance with a court-issued search warrant or wiretap order. Without such access, cyberspace becomes a lawless space where perpetrators operate undetected and can secretly prey on our children.

Ensuring lawful access to digital information is a priority of the Department of Justice. The department is committed to the development of a coherent national policy for responsible encryption, which continues to protect personal privacy and provide cybersecurity without compromising the safety of the public, and children in particular, some of our most vulnerable victims.

Updated January 20, 2021