From Real-Time Intercepts to Stored Records: Why Encryption Drives the Government to Seek Access to the Cloud

Internet, Privacy and Security, Cloud Computing and Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing

Article Snapshot


Peter Swire


International Data Privacy Law, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 200-206, 2012


Communications services today use strong encryption to protect data and voice communications. In response, law enforcement and national security seek access to unencrypted records stored in the cloud.

Policy Relevance

Traditional wiretaps are becoming less effective. Governments depend on the cooperation of other governments to access messages in a readable format.

Main Points

  • The Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires phone companies to facilitate wiretapping, but does not apply to Internet messages like email.
  • By 2012, the use of strong encryption to encode Internet message traffic was widespread.
    • Webmail providers such as Hotmail encrypt messages sent from one user to another.
    • Businesses use strong encryption to protect Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
    • Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls are encrypted.
  • The use of strong encryption means that law enforcement finds it difficult to access and read the plain text of messages while the message is in transit.
  • The strategy of bugging a surveillance target’s home or hacking his computer to access messages before encryption is risky and costly, and is used in high-priority cases.
  • Laws and regulations requiring communications services to facilitate wiretaps would be difficult to apply to the rapidly changing Internet.
  • Increasingly, law enforcement seeks access to messages stored in an unencrypted format.
    • Webmail messages are stored unencrypted on servers.
    • E-commerce data is stored in a readable format by banks.
    • Cloud storage services often can access the keys to decrypt messages.
  • The jurisdictions in which equipment or firms that store messages is located have an advantage in access over more remote jurisdictions.
  • By treaty, countries may request that other countries cooperate with wiretap requests.


Get The Article

Find the full article online

Search for Full Article