U.S. forces recovered a wealth of computer files, hard drives, thumb drives and electronic equipment from Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound after his killing this past weekend, but security experts say that if the files were correctly encrypted, it will be nearly impossible for intelligence experts to ever see what is stored on them.
"Correctly implemented encryption is very difficult to break," Steve Santorelli, director of global outreach at the Internet security research group Team Cymru, told SecurityNewsDaily.
Strong encryption presents a 'huge, huge challenge'
Santorelli, a former Scotland Yard police officer, said in his former career he gained entry to criminals' files that were encrypted poorly, or secured with easy-to-decipher passwords.
In one instance, a crook used his dog's name as his encryption password, a mistake that allowed Santorelli and his team to obtain digital evidence from the man's computer and put him away from murder.
But, presuming Osama bin Laden took caution to securely protect his digital data, it will be very difficult for U.S. forensic intelligence teams to access it, even with an arsenal of top experts and supercomputers.
"If data is encrypted correctly using good, best practices, I'm not aware of the ability to break that encryption," Santorelli said. "If correctly implemented and done by someone who understands how to do it, it's a huge, huge challenge."
According to CBS, bin Laden's files are currently under examination in Afghanistan and at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va.
The paranoia problem
Dan Goodin of The Register speculated that bin Laden's paranoia may have led him to take extra security measures with his computer files.
"Given bin Laden's well-founded paranoia, he probably used encryption to prevent outsiders from reading the contents of his computer," Goodin wrote.
Until the intelligence community reports its findings, however, speculation is all anyone can go on. The likelihood of accessing the files found in bin Laden's possession, then, comes down to how securely he protected them.
If bin Laden practiced "good tradecraft, [he] would burn after reading," John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, told SecurityNewsDaily.
What if bin Laden was a 'packrat'
However, if Osama bin Laden was what Pike called a "packrat" and stored large amounts of sensitive data insecurely, this will effectively present U.S. intelligence officials with "the keys to the kingdom."
Pike's colleague, GlobalSecurity.org senior fellow George Smith, contends that the files taken during the raid may have been weakly protected -- a direct reflection of the way bin Laden was living.
The "state of bin Laden's digs and the way he went down -- it is, for example, not at all obvious that he was surrounded by crack attendants as part of an elite clandestine HQ – argue for the case of slackness in his operation," Pike told SecurityNewsDaily.
Smith also puts his trust in the U.S. government to get their hands -- and eyes -- on any data they wish, no matter how securely protected.
I wouldn't bet on the odds the U.S. government can't read any such potential files," Smith said.