Charges Against Treasury Employee Show Weakness of Encrypted Apps

Charges Against Treasury Employee Show Weakness of Encrypted Apps

Encryption apps are only as secure as you make them.

Last week, the government unveils criminal charges against a Treasury Department employee accused of leaking confidential banking reports involving key figures in the special counsel's prove of Russian electron interference. The findings are a reminder that encrypted apps used by millions around the world may provide a false sense of security for people who do not use them correctly or take other security precautions.

Prosecutors say Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior official at the department's financial crimes unit, sent photos of the documents through an encrypted app to a reporter, who used them as the basis for a dozen stories related to the probe, according to the Washington Post. 

Normally, it would have been extremely difficult for investigators to have intercepted the messages because of the high level of security encrypted messaging apps provide, but prosecutors say they found hundreds of the messages Edwards stored on her cellphone when they searched the device last week.

The messages are said to have included communications in which Edwards "transmitted or described" the banking documents to the reporter.

The case is a high-profile reminder that users need to take extra steps — beyond just downloading an app — to receive the full benefits of an encrypted service. In other words, if you are backing up your decrypted messages onto your device, you are no longer protected by the app.

The potential false sense of security is an especially important warning sign for reporters and their sources, who have turned increasingly to encrypted apps for confidential communication. 

Cybersecurity reported Kim Zetter tweeted, "This should be an instruction for both reporters and their sources — encrypted messages are UNENCRYPTED on receiving/sending devices. If authorities obtain the device, the encryption is no good."

About the Author

Sydny Shepard is the Executive Editor of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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