The Federal Bureau of Investigation really, really wants to be able to access the contents of your smartphone. So much so, in fact, that the agency’s director just threw a small fit over what he described as a significant problem obscuring the view of his digital panopticon: Your phone’s encryption.
In an October 22 speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, director Christopher Wray bemoaned the FBI’s inability to access the data of approximately 6,900 mobile devices this fiscal year. According to the Associated Press, which reported on Wray’s comments, this number represents over half of all the devices the agency attempted to access during that time.
“To put it mildly, this is a huge, huge problem,” the wire service reports Wray as observing. “It impacts investigations across the board — narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation.”
And we might have had a little sympathy for the encryption-related travails of our nation’s law enforcement if the FBI wasn’t so historically full of it on that particular matter. But it most certainly has been, and one need look no further than the agency’s efforts force Apple to unlock an iPhone — claiming it was unable to do so without the tech company’s help — only to turn around and do it sans Apple’s assistance anyway.
That past history of misrepresentations, seemingly intended to garner public support for the FBI’s position, should inform the public’s reading of Director Wray’s recent comments. Because in the end, his words read as designed to stoke fear in order to push an anti-encryption agenda. And remember, encryption translates to your privacy — both from unlawful government searches and from criminals. Weakening the protections on your smartphone means putting your data at additional risk for abuse.
Importantly, Wray was specifically addressing the encryption of seized devices — not communications in transit – and should not be taken to mean the FBI has had any problems reading the exchanged messages of suspected criminals (or anyone else the agency has in its crosshairs).
“Encryption that frustrates forensic investigations will be a fact of life from now on for law enforcement agencies,” the BBC reports Wray as adding.
In the end, law enforcement is always going to want access to more data, and FBI pushback against consumer privacy and safeguards are to be expected. That doesn’t mean we have to take that pushback seriously, however