FBI chief: Encryption is 'urgent public safety issue'

FBI chief: Encryption is 'urgent public safety issue'

FBI Director Christopher Wray stated Tuesday that the inability of law enforcement agencies to surpass the strong encryptions on electronic devices poses an “urgent public safety issue.”

Wray said that during the last fiscal year, the FBI failed to break through the powerful protective coding of 7,775 devices, even though they had advanced tools at their disposal and the legal right to access the contents.

“While the FBI and law enforcement happen to be on the front lines of this problem, this is an urgent public safety issue for all of us,” Wray said during a speech at the International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) in New York.

“Because as horrifying as 7,800 in one year sounds, it’s going to be a lot worse in just a couple of years if we don’t find a responsible solution,” he added.

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The FBI chief said the inability to access cellphone data that is "going dark" would impact FBI investigations across the board including counterterrorism, counterintelligence, human trafficking and organized crime.

Wray, who took over as the head of the FBI in August, said the law enforcement community needs to urgently come up with a solution on encryption and that it must both “need and want the private sector’s help.”

“It will require a thoughtful and sensible approach, and may vary across business models and technologies, but—and I can’t stress this enough—we need to work fast,” he said.

“We need them to respond to lawfully issued court orders, in a way that is consistent with both the rule of law and strong cybersecurity."

“Let me be clear: The FBI supports information security measures, including strong encryption. But information security programs need to be thoughtfully designed so they don’t undermine the lawful tools we need to keep this country safe,” Wray said. 

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

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attends football game with Jeff Sessions' Alabama Senate race opponent Bradley Byrne Impeachment tests Barr-Trump relationship Tide, Tigers and Trump: President hopes for home-field advantage in Alabama MORE and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinDemocrats ask judge to force McGahn to comply with subpoena Democrats ask court to force DOJ's hand on Mueller grand jury materials Washington celebrates diplomacy — and baseball — at Meridian Ball MORE 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.

Updated: 4:06 p.m.