Google is releasing the next generation of the Android operating system next month, and it will encrypt data by default for the first time. This raises yet another barrier to police gaining access to the troves of personal data typically kept on smartphones.
Android has offered optional encryption on some devices since 2011, but few users have known how to turn on the feature. Now Google is designing the activation procedures for new Android devices so that encryption happens automatically; only somebody who enters a device’s password will be able to see the pictures, videos and communications stored on those smartphones.
The move offers Android, the world’s most popular operating system for smartphones, a degree of protection that resembles what Apple has done for the new iPhone operating system. Both companies have now embraced a form of encryption that in most cases will make it impossible for law enforcement officials to collect evidence from smartphones even when authorities get legally binding search warrants.
This move is part of a broad shift by American technology companies to make their products more resistant to government snooping in the aftermath of revelations of National Security Agency spying by former contractor Edward Snowden.
Expanded deployment of encryption by Google and Apple, however, will have the most direct impact on law enforcement officials, who have long warned that restrictions on their access to electronic devices make it much harder for them to prevent and solve crimes. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that police needed search warrants to gain access to data stored on phones in most circumstances. But that standard is quickly being rendered moot; eventually no form of legal compulsion will suffice to force the unlocking of most smartphones.
Privacy advocates are ecstatic about the changes by Apple and Google, and especially about their shift toward making encryption automatic, through default settings, so that users get privacy protections without taking any action on their own.
There remain significant differences between how Apple and Google are handling encryption. Apple, which controls both the hardware and software on its devices, will be able to deliver the updated encryption on both new iPhones and iPads, as users update their operating systems with the latest release, iOS 8.
That is likely to happen over the next several weeks, and for those with iOS 8, the encryption will be so secure that the company says it will lack the technical ability to unlock the phones or recover data for anyone — whether it be for police or even users themselves if they forget their device passcodes.