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Wednesday, 23 May 2018 12:14

FBI exaggerated number of encrypted phones blocking investigations

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The FBI has grossly exaggerated, on more than one occasion, the number of digital devices it cannot access due to encryption, claiming a figure of 7800 when the actual figure was between 1000 and 2000.

A report in the Washington Post said that over seven months, the FBI director Christopher Wray had mentioned the bogus higher figure as the main reason why law enforcement needed a way to get pas encryption.

The FBI claimed that it became aware of the bloated figures a month back and still did not have an accurate count of how many encrypted phones were received as part of investigations in 2017.

It blamed "programming errors" for the wrong numbers. But it said that despite the stuff-up "going dark remains a serious problem for the FBI, as well as other federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners. ... The FBI will continue pursuing a solution that ensures law enforcement can access evidence of criminal activity with appropriate legal authority".

Last month, US politicians from both sides of the divide cast doubts on the FBI's claims, characterising them as "highly questionable".

Their reaction came in a letter to Wray about the agency's actions in the 2016 stoush with Apple, over gaining access to an iPhone 5C belonging to a terrorist who had killed Americans in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015.

In March 2016, the agency obtained a court order, asking the company to supply a new version of its mobile operating system, iOS, which did not have certain locking functions, so that it could attempt to guess the passcode on the iPhone 5C by using a brute force method.

When Apple resisted, the FBI came back with an order compelling the company to fall in line.

After some to-ing and fro-ing, in March 2017, the FBI ended the stoush, saying it had gained access to the iPhone in question.

The Post said that Wray had first cited the inflated statistics in October last year, claiming nearly 7000 encrypted devices were part of investigations over the previous 11 months.

Two months later, he told the US Congress that in the 2017 budget year, the FBI “was unable to access the content of approximately 7800 mobile devices using appropriate and available technical tools, even though there was legal authority to do so".

The incorrect claim about encrypted device could "fuel further criticism from lawmakers, privacy advocates and tech companies, and hinder the bureau’s public efforts to address encryption issues", the Post said.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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