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DEA: ‘There Is No Silver Bullet’ for Going Dark

A presentation obtained by Motherboard shows the Drug Enforcement Agency accepting the reality of encryption.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

Image: eranicle/Shutterstock

Law enforcement agencies and lawmakers around the world are trying to wrestle with the spread of encryption. More services offering robust end-to-end encryption has led to what is known as the "going dark" problem, where authorities can no longer intercept communications in more traditional ways.

However, the US Drug Enforcement Administration says "there is no silver bullet coming" to address this issue, according to an internal DEA presentation obtained by Motherboard.

"Going dark is a reality that law enforcement will have to adapt around," the presentation continues. Motherboard obtained the undated presentation and another document through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A memo accompanying the presentation specifically points to encrypted messaging apps WhatsApp, Viber, and Wickr, as well as criminals using Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption to secure their communications. The memo says PGP is used widely in Canada, western European countries, and increasingly in South America.

Notably, the documents don't explicitly mention hard-drive encryption, which is designed to protect data stored on a device. In 2016, the US government and Apple entered a fierce legal battle over access to a locked and encrypted iPhone.

The presentation lists several "current efforts underway," such as legislative solutions, regulation, and judicial solutions.

"Encrypted technologies and communications are the single greatest threat to law enforcement capability and effectiveness," one of the documents reads. According to the document, DEA investigations are routinely limited by drug trafficking organizations' use of encryption.

Indeed, this is one reason the DEA has invested in hacking tools to circumvent encryption. As Motherboard found, the DEA spent millions of dollars on Remote Control System, a product from Italian surveillance company Hacking Team. Hacking Team also invoiced the DEA for access to zero-day exploits, according to a copy of the invoice obtained by Motherboard. The DEA said in a letter to Senator Chuck Grassley it used the technology to target drug traffickers and money launderers outside of the US.

The DEA also met with Israeli malware vendor NSO Group, according to internal emails obtained by Motherboard.

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