People pose in front of a display showing the word 'cyber' in binary code, December 27, 2014.
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Since Apple and Google announced last year that they would encrypt mobile user data by default, senior Western officials have denounced the decision as a win for terrorists and violent criminals who will now be better able to shield their communications from government scrutiny. So-called always-on encryption, a feature introduced to mitigate post-Edward Snowden criticisms of how the companies handle government information requests, has left many law enforcement officials fearing that their surveillance capabilities will “go dark.” Some have called for a legislative fix to help keep the lights on. 

But such a remedy is unlikely anytime soon. In the meantime, foreign government agencies scared of going blind and unable to develop their own workarounds are likely to lean more heavily on hacking companies that market sophisticated intrusion software (“spyware”) that enables surveillance of encrypted communications. The global trade in commercial spyware is already booming, but as more communications are

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  • BENJAMIN BRAKE is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served as an analyst covering cyber issues in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this paper are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the United States Government.

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