Report: FBI Greatly Overestimated Threat Posed by Encrypted Cell Phones

A man displays a protest message on his iPhone at a small rally in support of Apple’s refusal to help the FBI access the cell phone of a gunman involved in the killings of 14 people in San Bernardino, in Santa Monica, California, February 23, 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The FBI massively overestimated the number of encrypted cell phones investigators were unable to access last year while addressing Congress and the public, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

FBI director Christopher Wray repeatedly claimed that investigators were locked out of 7,800 devices connected to crimes last year, when the actual number is likely between 1,000 and 2,000 phones. Over a period of seven months, Wray cited the inflated the figure to illustrate the importance of addressing the ever-growing encryption capabilities of criminals.

The FBI first became aware of the incorrect numbers last month, but officials are still unaware of exactly how many encrypted phones they encountered while investigating crimes last year. An audit is currently taking place to determine the actual scale of the problem.

“The FBI’s initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported,’’ the FBI said in a statement Tuesday, adding that the issue likely resulted from the conflation of three distinct databases that led to repeated counting of phones. “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.”

Wray has publicly relied on the incorrect figure in numerous speeches and addresses to Congress in service of his advocacy for legislation that would force technology companies to ensure authorities can access their devices.

“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 January speech 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.”

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