02:42 GMT19 January 2021
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    A secretive unit of one of the United States' largest investigative bureaus has been sued for reportedly procuring software to spy on encrypted data on smartphone handsets. The news comes amid the outgoing Trump administration's campaign against Chinese tech firms, which are accused of building alleged backdoors in their products.

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has announced it will sue the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for reportedly breaking the encryption on the smartphones of US citizens.

    The nonprofit said in a press release last week the FBI refused to acknowledge its role in the privacy violations despite details being made available in US federal court, and followed with a complaint for injunctive relief on 22 December.

    The US government had previously urged tech companies to build backdoors in their products aimed at circumventing encryption, but escalated its efforts by building its capacity to decrypt user devices, the statement added.

    ACLU representatives added that an FBI division called the Electronic Device Analysis Unit (EDAU) was attempting to procure software aimed at decrypting information securely stored on mobile handsets.

    "The FBI is secretly breaking the encryption that secures our cell phones and laptops from identity thieves, hackers, and abusive governments, and it refuses to even acknowledge that it has information about these efforts — even though some details have been filed publicly in federal court. We’re suing to get some answers," the statement read.

    The EDAU could also decrypt and access information on locked iPhones and had attempted to hire an electronics engineer tasked with “performing forensic extractions and advanced data recovery on locked and damaged devices”, it read.

    The ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain FBI records on the EDAU programme, but the bureau refused to confirm or deny information on the secretive unit via a Glomar response, despite records being publicly available.

    Numerous governments, including the US, Australia and others have used similar programmes to decrypt information, CyberScoop reported last week. Europol has also launched a decryption platform to tackle organised crime.

    US Government Accuses Chinese Companies of Backdoors

    The news comes amid allegations from the Trump administration, which has routinely accused Chinese firms such as Huawei Technologies, ZTE and later, TikTok owner ByteDance, of spying and gathering data for the Chinese government.

    Huawei, ZTE and chipmaker SMIC have been placed on an entity list over alleged security concerns, with the former two being designated as national security risks. Beijing, Huawei and ByteDance have repeatedly and routinely denied the claims, with the former two demanding to see evidence related to Washington's allegations.

    The UK also blocked Huawei from building national networks in July and followed with a Telecommunications Bill in November imposing heavy fines on national telcos, up to 10 percent of annual turnover, due to the alleged security risks.

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    Europol Launches Decryption Platform to Enhance Cybercrime Investigation
    Tags:
    lawsuit, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), smartphones, Trump administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), spying
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