FBI Says It Can't Get Into 6,900 Encrypted Phones. So What?

from the doing-less-with-more dept

The new director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, has apparently decided to take up James Comey's anti-encryption fight. He's been mostly quiet on the issue since assuming the position, but the DOJ's recent calls for "responsible encryption" has emboldened the new FBI boss to speak up on the subject.

And speak up he has. Although the FBI still hasn't released the text of his remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more than a few sites are reporting it was the usual "go team law enforcement" boosterism, but with the added zest of phone encryption complaints.

He also spoke about roadblocks in dealing with cellphone encryption technology, saying that in first 11 months of the fiscal year, the FBI has been unable to access content from 6,900 mobile devices despite having the proper legal authority to do so.

"It's going to be a lot worse than that in just a couple of years if we don't come up with some responsible solution," he lamented. "I'm open to all ideas."

All ideas, maybe. But certainly not all viewpoints. The Deputy Attorney General has made it clear in multiple speeches he views phone encryption as the end result of tech companies' low-minded pursuit of revenue. DAG Rosenstein repeatedly emphasized US law enforcement measures success by a different standard -- a standard mercenary phone manufacturers couldn't even begin to approach.

Of course, the FBI head also nodded towards the importance of device security.

"I get it, there's a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe."

But does he actually "get it?" What if the status quo is the ending "balance?" Would that satisfy Wray? Doubtful. He wants law enforcement-friendly security holes and he wants tech companies to provide them voluntarily.

The number of locked devices means nothing. The "6,900 mobile devices" will be 8,000 or 10,000 by early next year -- sound-and-fury totals signifying nothing. It was 6,000 phones when Comey trotted out numbers earlier this year. It will always increase and it will always grab eyeballs but it won't ever mean anything unless the FBI is willing to provide a lot more context.

Is the FBI just spectacularly bad at cracking cell phones? We're not hearing these complaints from local law enforcement agencies with less expertise and lower budgets. Is the FBI just not even trying? Is it not using everything it has available -- including a number of judicial forgiveness plans for rights violations -- to get into these phones? It's inconceivable the nation's top law enforcement agency is experiencing nearly a 50% failure rate when it comes to locked phones.

All Wray says is there are 6,900 phones the FBI hasn't gotten into. Yet. What's never discussed is how many investigations resumed unimpeded by cellphone encryption. Phones are not the sole repository of criminal evidence in any investigation. The FBI has options even if the seized phone seems impermeable. The FBI insinuates it's being stopped, but never specifies how many of these phones have resulted in terminated investigations.

It's just a number, divorced from context, but one the FBI can ensure will always be larger than last time it was mentioned.

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Filed Under: chris wray, context, crime, encryption, fbi, going dark, phones


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  1. identicon
    David, 26 Oct 2017 @ 2:19pm

    Re:

    In particular if you include in the count the number of law enforcement officials illegally trying to access a phone without a warrant outside of exigent circumstances.

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