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 LofgrenBipartisan group of lawmakers offer bill to provide certainty following online sales tax ruling Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Live coverage: Tensions mount as Rosenstein grilled by GOP MORE (D-Calif.), Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaGreen group targets California GOP House candidates in new ads House Republican pushes medical examinations for Supreme Court justices Congress and Trump are out of step on intellectual property MORE (R-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerOn The Money: Trump readying 0B in tariffs for China | Warren wants companies to disclose climate impacts | Bill aims to provide clarity to online sales tax ruling One bill that will stop the spread of deadly fentanyl Ryan backs Vukmir in Wisconsin Senate GOP primary MORE (R-Wis.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeCook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R-Texas), Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisInterior moves ahead with opening wildlife refuge next to contaminated nuclear site Environmental group pledges M to help green candidates Overnight Health Care: South Dakota proposes Medicaid work requirements | Senate Republicans sign off on opioids package | GOP targets Manchin over Planned Parenthood MORE (D-Col.), Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzThe federal government must stop stifling medical marijuana research Hillicon Valley: Twitter chief faces GOP anger over bias | DOJ convenes meeting on bias claims | Rubio clashes with Alex Jones | DHS chief urges lawmakers to pass cyber bill | Sanders bill takes aim at Amazon Conservatives blame McCarthy for Twitter getting before favorable committee MORE (R-Fla.), Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Hillicon Valley: Deal reached on ZTE, but lawmakers look to block it | New encryption bill | Dems push Ryan for net neutrality vote | Google vows it won't use AI for weapons Lawmakers renew push to preempt state encryption laws MORE (D-Wash.) and Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanRussia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly Jordan says FBI used 'crushing power of the state' to probe Trump campaign based on dossier 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.