FBI tells lawmakers it can't access Dayton gunman's phone

Top FBI officials informed congressional lawmakers this week that they have been unable to access the smartphone of the suspected gunman in the Dayton, Ohio, mass shooting, two sources told The Hill.

In a briefing about the weekend shootings in Dayton and El Paso, Texas, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich told House Democrats that the agency is in possession of what’s believed to be Connor Betts’s primary phone but can’t open it because it requires a passcode, according to the two sources who took part in Wednesday's briefing.

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Dayton police on Sunday identified Betts, 24, as the suspected gunman in the mass shooting that left nine dead and 27 injured. Police said Betts was killed by officers roughly 30 seconds after the shooting began.

During the conference call with lawmakers, Bowdich said the FBI “can’t unlock” the device. If Betts was using a six- to eight-digit PIN, it could be months or even years before the FBI can crack the password, Bowdich said.

“We don’t know when we are going to get into the phone,” he told lawmakers, according to a source on the call, one of several FBI briefings this week involving members of Congress from both parties.

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration has criticized tech companies’ ability to fully encrypt communications. Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrBarr bemoans 'moral upheaval' that has brought 'suffering and misery' Trump threatens to sue Schiff and Pelosi Democratic lawmaker says Barr's reported meeting with Murdoch should be investigated MORE said in a speech last month that encrypted messaging services allow "criminals to operate with impunity."

The cost of encryption is “ultimately measured in a mounting number of victims — men, women and children who are the victims of crimes, crimes that could have been prevented if law enforcement had been given lawful access to encrypted evidence," Barr said during a speech at a cybersecurity conference.

After a 2015 mass shooting left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, Calif., the FBI mounted a public campaign to pressure Apple into creating software that would give law enforcement access to one of the shooter’s phones. The Department of Justice asked a federal court in California to compel the iPhone maker into building a backdoor into the device.

Before the court could rule on the DOJ’s motion, the FBI announced it had managed to gain access into the phone with the help of an outside contractor, heading off what might have been a landmark battle with Silicon Valley over civil liberties.

— This report was updated at 3:43 p.m.