FBI reportedly overestimated inaccessible encrypted phones by thousands

The FBI seems to have been caught fibbing again on the topic of encrypted phones. FBI director Christopher Wray estimated in December that it had almost 7,800 phones from 2017 alone that investigators were unable to access. The real number is likely less than a quarter of that, The Washington Post reports.

Internal records cited by sources put the actual number of encrypted phones at perhaps 1,200 but perhaps as many as 2,000, and the FBI told the paper in a statement that “initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported.” Supposedly having three databases tracking the phones led to devices being counted multiple times.

Such a mistake would be so elementary that it’s hard to conceive of how it would be possible. These aren’t court notes, memos or unimportant random pieces of evidence, they’re physical devices with serial numbers and names attached. The idea that no one thought to check for duplicates before giving a number to the director for testimony in Congress suggests either conspiracy or gross incompetence.

The latter seems more likely after a report by the Office of the Inspector General that found the FBI had failed to utilize its own resources to access locked phones, instead suing Apple and then hastily withdrawing the case when its basis (a locked phone from a terror attack) was removed. It seems to have chosen to downplay or ignore its own capabilities in order to pursue the narrative that widespread encryption is dangerous without a backdoor for law enforcement.

An audit is underway at the Bureau to figure out just how many phones it actually has that it can’t access, and hopefully how this all happened.

It is unmistakably among the FBI’s goals to emphasize the problem of devices being fully encrypted and inaccessible to authorities, a trend known as “going dark.” That much it has said publicly, and it is a serious problem for law enforcement. But it seems equally unmistakable that the Bureau is happy to be sloppy, deceptive or both in its advancement of a tailored narrative.

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