​FBI inflated encrypted device figures, misleading public

Encrypted cell phones were a major obstacle to criminal investigation. The FBI now admits the problem was much smaller than they'd originally reported.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Contrary to what the FBI told the public, we now know that instead of 7,775 encrypted smartphones proving stumbling blocks to FBI criminal investigations, there are no more than 2,000.

Over the last seven months, FBI Director Christopher Wray claimed that the agency couldn't access the content of 7,775 devices in 2017 -- more than half of all the smartphones it tried to crack -- despite having a search warrant.

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Wray called this a "major public safety issue", and used it to push a "responsible encryption" mantra -- in other words, encryption backdoors.

The FBI denied ZDNet's request for information on these phones. The bureau said the information was exempt from disclosure, as the records "could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

Internally though the FBI knew they miscounted the devices as of a month ago. The bureau still doesn't have an accurate count of how many encrypted phones it has from last year.

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This miscount arose from the use of three different databases to track the phones. This led to some phones being counted multiple times.

This "mistake" came as no surprise to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Andrew Crocker of the EFF wrote, "Frankly, we're not surprised. FBI Director Christopher Wray and others argue that law enforcement needs some sort of backdoor 'exceptional access' in order to deal with the increased adoption of encryption, particularly on mobile devices."

Kevin Bankston, Director of New America's Open Technology Institute, added, "For years, the FBI has been pushing for backdoors into encrypted mobile devices based on broad claims that law enforcement is 'going dark', even as practically every expert outside of law enforcement has made clear that doing so would seriously undermine our cybersecurity, our digital privacy, and our tech economy. Now, it turns out that the FBI's claims were based on bad math and the problem is only a small fraction of what we were originally told making it all the more clear that Congress should refuse the FBI's call for legislation that would undermine the security of our smartphones."

Still, the FBI maintains, "Going Dark," the agency's term for criminals using encryption to evade justice, "remains a serious problem for the FBI, as well as other federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners.

And, so the battle between law enforcement and personal privacy over encryption continues.

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