Wyden presses FBI for information on inflated encryption figures

Wyden presses FBI for information on inflated encryption figures
© Greg Nash

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Wednesday called on the FBI to provide more information regarding the inflated figures on encrypted cellphones that federal investigators were unable to access last year as part of ongoing investigations.

“I write to you today to express my concern regarding recent reports that the FBI has repeatedly misled the public and elected officials both in Congress and in states with respect to the number of electronic devices rendered inaccessible by strong encryption," Wyden wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray.

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The FBI said they weren't able to access 7,800 devices last year, when, according to a Tuesday Washington Post report, the actual number was closer to between 1,000 and 2,000 devices. 

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“The FBI’s initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported,’’ the FBI told the Post in a statement.

The bureau said the miscalculation resulted from using three distinct databases, where the same device could be counted more than once for the tally.

Wyden blasted the error as being either "sloppy" or an attempt to push their "legislative agenda," while requesting more information like how many devices they actually were unable to access, and how many of those instances affected ongoing investigations, among other questions.

“When the FBI reportedly misstates the number of devices rendered inaccessible by encryption, it is either too sloppy in its work or pushing a legislative agenda,” Wyden wrote, adding that the government has "long held discredited views about encryption."

The FBI denied that this was a case of misconduct, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, citing an FBI official.

The bureau has long argued that law enforcement should have the ability to pry open cellphones as a way of protecting domestic security.

Earlier this year, Wray said the inability to access cellphone data, known as "going dark," would impact FBI investigations across the board including counterterrorism, counterintelligence, human trafficking and organized crime.

The Democratic lawmaker, however, alleged that the bureau was using the hype around high-profile terrorist attacks to push for access to such devices.  

“Recently, the FBI exploited the terrorist attack and tragedy in San Bernardino to pursue a strategy in the Courts that they hoped would lead to requiring companies to build in ‘exceptional access,’ also known as ‘backdoors.’ According to the Department of Justice Inspector General, the FBI was more interested in establishing a powerful legal precedent than actually gaining access to the terrorist’s iPhone," he continued.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the top officials at the Department of Justice, have repeatedly called for tech companies to design encryption systems that still allow law enforcement access — an argument also made during the Obama administration.

Such efforts have been resisted by tech companies and privacy advocates, who warn creating a back door into such devices weakens their security in general and that law enforcement could exploit this vulnerability going forward.