Sessions blasts tech firms for blocking access to encrypted evidence

Sessions blasts tech firms for blocking access to encrypted evidence
© Camille Fine

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE is taking aim at technology firms for preventing law enforcement from accessing encrypted evidence for ongoing terror investigations, warning that such actions could have “deadly consequences.” 

The issue has become a point of tension between tech companies and federal investigators in high-profile cases, such as the 2016 dispute between the FBI and Apple over data stored on an iPhone belonging to a suspect in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack. 

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Sessions, who delivered remarks on national security in New York City, said that over the past year the FBI was unable to access nearly 7,500 mobile devices in connection with ongoing investigations “even though there was court orders or legal authority to do so.” 

The figure echoed remarks made by FBI Director Christopher Wray in October, who said the bureau had been unable to obtain data from over 6,900 mobile devices in 11 months. 

"This failure to get encrypted information in a timely manner causes law enforcement to waste even more valuable time and resources,” Sessions said Thursday. “And it could have potentially deadly consequences.” 

The attorney general spoke just days after eight people were killed in a terror attack in New York, which he said constituted “one more reminder of the dangerous threats that we face as a nation.” 

“To investigate terrorism, we will need access to electronic evidence in a lawful way. Too often, technology companies refuse to cooperate with law enforcement or even to comply with court orders,” Sessions said. 

“We know, for example, that the terrorist who targeted an event in Garland, Texas, in 2015 sent more than 100 instant messages to a terrorist overseas — just on the morning of the attack,” he continued. “What we don’t know, however, is what he said — because those messages are encrypted.” 

Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’s deputy, has similarly sounded the alarm over what he calls “warrant-proof encryption.” 

Tech companies have at times fought warrants on electronic data over data privacy concerns. In 2016, Apple refused a federal request to unlock the iPhone connected to the San Bernardino attack out of privacy concerns. The FBI eventually paid professional hackers to unlock the device in order to access the communications for the investigation.