Flickr image via Yuri Samoilov

US Intel Community Taps Encryption-Busting Tech Firm for Digital Spying

The venture capital arm of the CIA is buying in to a Canadian company that says it can access certain encrypted technologies.

Amid growing terrorist threats from groups like ISIS and increasingly successful cyberattacks from nation states like China, the U.S. intelligence community today announced it will invest in a company that produces digital forensics software.

In-Q-Tel, the IC’s technology investment arm, did not disclose how much funding it will provide the Canadian-based Magnet Forensics, but officials said they believe the company and its flagship product, the Internet Evidence Finder, are promising examples of innovation in the expanding field of digital forensics.

Internet Evidence Finder, the 4-year-old company’s most popular product, is used by 2,700 public safety organizations across 92 countries, primarily for law enforcement purposes. It recovers and analyzes unstructured data, like social media posts, text from chat rooms and emails from computers and other Web-connected devices.

The company bills its software as useful for “cybercrime, terrorism, child exploitation and insider threats,” but it’s likely the first two avenues are the most interesting for In-Q-Tel. Use cases for such technology include both predicting terrorism or cyberattacks and piecing together the digital pieces after an event.

Comments made recently by Jad Saliba, founder and chief technology officer of Magnet Forensics, suggest another interest In-Q-Tel might have in the company: mitigating encryption.

Saliba's company collects digital evidence from devices, including the "unbreakable" iPhone, according to a report in the Toronto Star last month. 

“While conducting such digital forensic investigations on (an Apple device) is becoming increasingly difficult due to increased encryption, we’re committed to continuing to innovate to support our partners in law enforcement so they can get the critical evidence they need for their investigations,” Saliba said in a statement to the Star. 

Following the terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris, U.S. intelligence officials, including CIA Director John Brennan, said encryption technologies were making it more difficult to monitor terrorists.

Recently, key lawmakers proposed the first bills addressing encrypted communications, suggesting tech companies work with government to address the issue. British lawmakers considered a bill last month that would have allowed the police to force tech companies to decrypt communications.

Such legislation isn’t out of the question in America, though it would surely draw ire from privacy advocates who have more legal footing to stand on. It’s likely, though, the intelligence community wants to explore every avenue it can in exploiting encryption.