The FBI has overstated the number of encrypted cellphones it has encountered through criminal probes by as much as nearly eight times, according to a report published Tuesday by The Washington Post.
Most likely, investigators have been unable to unlock 1,000 to 2,000 mobile devices employing the advanced security feature rather than the oft-claimed 7,800 figure.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has used that figure on a number of occasions to purport how meddlesome encryption — the process of transforming information into a (sometimes pseudo-random) complex code that aims to block unauthorized access — is for law enforcement and the intelligence community.
Wray declared it an “urgent public safety issue” in January, a point he has reiterated in some way several times since he took the helm.
The FBI said in a statement that its count was probably inflated by “programming errors.”
The bureau has estimated that the actual number of locked phones is around 1,200, according to The Post, and it will be administering an audit to get a more accurate, exact figure.
“Going Dark remains a serious problem for the FBI, as well as other federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners,” the country’s top law enforcement agency stated, according to The Post. “The FBI will continue pursuing a solution that ensures law enforcement can access evidence of criminal activity with appropriate legal authority.”
The battle between law enforcement and encryption has been a perennial and heated issue.
The conflict surfaced prominently when authorities originally couldn’t gain access to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators in the December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting.
During the aftermath, then-FBI Director James Comey pressured Apple CEO Tim Cook to help officials crack the code so it could see communications and other pertinent information in the weeks prior to the violent attack. But because of an auto-wipe feature, all data would be instantly deleted after 10 failed attempts at the key code.
A California judge later ordered Apple to assist in hacking the cellphone, a judicial ruling Apple pushed back against.
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor,” Cook wrote in February 2016, referencing how it ignores the basics of digital security. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”
Like clockwork, the issue came up many times thereafter, both domestically and internationally.
FBI officials said the agency was having difficulties decrypting the personal device of the gunman who killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017.
Turkish and Russian authorities said the same in December 2016 when they couldn’t unlock the iPhone 4S of the killer who assassinated Russia’s ambassador to Turkey during a speech at an art exhibition.
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