FBI’s plea for encryption back doors based on false information

by Steve Blum • , ,

The Federal Bureau of Investigation gave the U.S. congress and the public bad information about the problems it has cracking encrypted phones during investigations, many times over several months. According to a story by Devlin Barrett in the Washington Post, FBI director Christopher Wray repeatedly, and falsely, claimed that agents were locked out of almost 7,800 smart phones and other devices, because of advanced encryption.

He began using the 7,800 figure last year, when he urged congress to give law enforcement back door access to encrypted devices and content…

Wray has repeated the claim about 7,800 locked phones, including in a March speech. Those remarks were echoed earlier [in May] by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Last year, the FBI was unable to access investigation-related content on more than 7,700 devices — even though they had the legal authority to do so. Each of those devices was tied to a threat to the American people,” Sessions said.

Officials now admit none of those statements are true.

The real number, according to the story, is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. The FBI used three different data bases to track phones, and “programming errors” led to the over count.

The FBI is actually providing the best arguments against trusting government agencies – even if well intentioned – secret keys to everyone’s encrypted content. In 2016, it warned about foreign governments “successfully hacking and stealing data from US government’s servers, their activities going unnoticed for years”. Earlier this year, the FBI’s inspector general highlighted miscommunication within the agency over an ultimately successful attempt to crack an Apple iPhone owned by one of the shooters that murdered 14 people at a San Bernardino county employee party in 2015. The problem, according to multiple experts who reviewed the report, came down to the FBI just being lazy, raising the question “how much of the going dark debate is the FBI simply seeking easier ways to do investigations?”

Now, it turns out it can’t even keep a couple thousand records straight in its own data bases.