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. 

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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. 

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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.