Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption

Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pressing FBI Director Christopher Wray on the bureau’s efforts to unlock encrypted devices after a critical watchdog report.

In a letter sent Friday, the lawmakers called into question recent statements made by Wray and others that the bureau is unable to access scores of devices for ongoing criminal investigations because of encryption — often referred to as the “going dark” problem. 

ADVERTISEMENT
According to a report released last month, the Justice Department inspector general found that the FBI did not exhaust all avenues to unlock the iPhone of one of suspects in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack before seeking a court order to force Apple to unlock the device. 

One FBI official also voiced concerns that agents weren’t exhausting all technical avenues to unlock the device because they wanted the suit against Apple to go forward. 

In the letter sent Friday, several House lawmakers labeled the inspector general report “troubling,” arguing that it undermines statements made by FBI officials that only device manufacturers could provide a solution to unlock encrypted devices.

The lawmakers also cited news reports that private companies like Cellebrite and Greyshift have developed capabilities to unlock encrypted phones. 

Taken together, they argued, the revelations cast doubt on Wray’s recent assertion that the FBI was unable to access 7,800 devices last fiscal year despite having relevant court orders. 

“According to your testimony and public statements, the FBI encountered 7,800 devices last year that it could not access due to encryption,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, in light of the availability of unlocking tools developed by third-parties and the OIG report’s findings that the Bureau was uninterested in seeking available third-party options, these statistics appear highly questionable.” 

The lawmakers are asking Wray to respond to several questions, including whether he has consulted with third-party vendors to understand tools that could be used to break encryption, and whether the bureau has attempted to use tools developed by third parties to access the 7,800 devices. 

The letter is signed by Reps. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLawmakers question FBI director on encryption Dems say 20 'poison pills' stand in way of spending deal Democrats propose .7 billion in grants for election security MORE (D-Calif.), Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaCalifornia Republicans seek turnout boost to avert midterm disaster Is Paul Ryan the latest sign of crumbling Republican Party? Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption MORE (R-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerLawmakers question FBI director on encryption Doug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair Lawmakers renew call for end to 'black budget' secrecy MORE (R-Wis.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeBipartisan group of lawmakers calls on Russia to stay out of Latin American elections Republican lawmaker introduces new cyber deterrence bill Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption MORE (R-Texas), Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisLawmakers question FBI director on encryption McGovern tapped to replace Slaughter as top Dem on Rules panel Tom Tancredo drops out of Colorado gubernatorial race MORE (D-Col.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzMcMorris Rodgers seeks to tamp down unrest Medical marijuana legislation gets support of key House Republican Trump to lawmakers pressing Sessions to investigate Comey and Clinton: 'Good luck with that' MORE (R-Fla.), Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneLawmakers seek answers from IRS following Tax Day systems glitch Lawmakers question FBI director on encryption Lobbying World MORE (D-Wash.) and Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanArizona GOP winner to join Freedom Caucus CNN's Cuomo clashes with conservative lawmaker: You're 'selective in your outrage' Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it MORE (R-Ohio).

Wray and other Justice Department officials have stepped up talk about the challenge posed by encryption in recent months. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is said to be mounting a push for a legal mandate that would require tech companies to build tools into devices that would allow law enforcement access. 

There are also early efforts on Capitol Hill to explore potential encryption legislation.