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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Criminal masterminds?

9 June 2021

This is the sort of thing you wouldn't believe if it was in a book or a movie.

Yesterday, police in a number of countries took action against organised crime syndicates thanks to information provided by the FBI in the USA.

Properties were raided, guns, assets and the proceeds of crime were seized, bad guys were thrown in jail.

All in all, a good day's work by the boys in blue with a lot of back-slapping and congratulations in order.

But how did the FBI get the info that allowed these raids to take place?

The answer is so insanely simple that it beggars belief that they got away with it.

The FBI simply created a (supposedly) secure messaging system and sold it to the criminal gangs on a subscription basis.

Of course the crims didn't realise that the "secure" system came from the FBI so they began openly messaging each other in a way that opened the lid on their illegal activities. Meanwhile, all the time, the feds were listening and making notes.

Perhaps the bad guys have now learned the importance of doing their due dilligence when selecting a messaging platform.

This must have been a very difficult ethical responsibility for those law-enforcement agents that were privy to the conversations going on -- because some of the communications apparently detailed proposed hits against innocent third parties.

What do you do when you know someone is going ot be murdered but to act on the information risks showing the hand you're using to gather this info? Do you save the intended victim and potentially cost more lives down the road because your deception is exposed? Or do you allow an innocent person to die because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

This is not a decision *I* would want to be forced to make but, despite the fact that the FBI claim to have protected some of the intended victims, I suspect that some were allowed to meet their fate in the name of pragmatism.

From the perspective of organised crime, secure encrypted global communications is a godsend. Being able to exchange messages with your peers without fear of being overheard by authorities must make life a whole lot easier. It would seem that after this latest operation however, the crims will be a whole lot more careful.

If I was part of the underworld, I'd certainly be sending some of my most trusted mates to university to learn all about the process of encryption then having them create my very own secure platform. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this is not too difficult a task these days.

I fully expect to see a "home made" platform spring from the ashes of yesterday's raids so all we, as the "good guys" have done is buy ourselves a little room to breathe.

Will this latest action place further pressure on vendors to include "back doors" for law enforcement in their systems? Well there are arguments for and against that result from the raids.

Clearly the FBI was able to achieve this outcome without the need for back doors in readily available systems so one could argue "no".

However, this does prove that secure platforms are a tool much sought after and used by the criminal element so one could also argue "yes".

Me? Well I think criminals have always had secure messaging systems available to them, long before the arrival of personal computing resources. Nothing has changed so why would we need to further strip away the privacy of those who we are trying to protect?

Those who give up their privacy and liberty in the search for safety deserve none of the above (to abuse the words of Benamin Franklin).

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