The FBI inflated the number of encrypted phones connected to crimes that it did not have access to, according to a report by The Washington Post. The FBI repeatedly claimed to Congress and the public that it did not have access to nearly 7,800 devices linked to criminal investigations last year, though the true number is only a fraction of that, at around 1,000 to 2,000. The bureau has known about the inaccurate number for about a month. One internal estimate puts the accurate number of encrypted devices at 1,200, but a new audit is being launched, and that number may yet change, the paper reported. The miscount occurred because the FBI counted the same devices from three different databases.
The inflated number is significant, given that FBI director Christopher Wray has repeatedly cited the 7,800 figure over the past seven months, using it to justify the FBI’s need to tackle the issue of “Going Dark.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also cited the number in remarks. Officials have since said that statements made by both men referencing the inflated number aren’t true.
In a statement, the FBI said:
“The FBI’s initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported. Going Dark remains a serious problem for the FBI, as well as other federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners. The FBI will continue pursuing a solution that ensures law enforcement can access evidence of criminal activity with appropriate legal authority.”
The FBI has previously highlighted the importance of tackling the issue of “Going Dark” — when law enforcement authorities are unable to access information related to crimes because of encryption. This was most notable during the investigation into the San Bernardino shooting in 2015 when authorities initially had trouble accessing a suspect’s iPhone after Apple objected to demands that it build a backdoor into the device. (The FBI eventually found a workaround.)
The FBI says it’s in the public’s best interest for law enforcement authorities to be able to access encrypted phones with a signed order from a judge. But some privacy groups argue that encrypting data is essential in safeguarding law-abiding citizens from hackers, corporations, and overzealous governments at home and abroad. Regardless, the battle against encrypted phones has seen some clever circumventing: UK police have previously waited for suspects to make a call, then simply snatched the device out of their hands in unlocked mode before arresting them, and Florida detectives ave attempted to use a dead suspect’s finger to unlock his phone.