The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports that the FBI lied about how many devices in the US they have been unable to hack. In December of 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that the Bureau “was unable to access the content of approximately 7,800 mobile devices using appropriate and available technical tools, even though there was legal authority to do so.”
Now, the FBI is walking back that statement and claiming that the actual number of locked devices is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, and that the miscalculation was due to ‘programming errors,’ according to the Washington Post. An accurate count of how many phones are locked has not been released, though internal sources estimate it falls around the 1,200 range. Officials are launching an audit, which may not be completed for several weeks.
Wray has argued that law enforcement entities need to find a back door way to access encrypted devices. The inflated number served as evidence in his attempt to address the ‘Going Dark’ issue in the FBI, in which encrypted softwares block the FBI, or any other hacker for that matter, from accessing digital data, even if the investigator has a court order.
The FBI stated last week that their “initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported.” These so-called ‘programming errors’ stemmed from three different databases that caused repeat counting of devices, but experts say this mistake is unlikely. The Bureau is standing by their claim that ‘Going Dark’ is a major issue that needs to be addressed within the FBI and other law enforcement entities.
“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 in January. “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.” He continued to cited this number into March. Attorney General Jeff Sessions latched on to the number as well, saying “Last year, the FBI was unable to access investigation-related content on more than 7,700 devices — even though they had the legal authority to do so. Each of those devices was tied to a threat to the American people.” Officials have deemed all of the statements false.
Whether it was a mistake or intentional deception, it is another in a long run of PR blunders and high-stake errors for the Bureau, most notably their knowledge that a Florida teen planned to carry out a school shooting. 17 kids died in Parkland weeks later. These ‘programming errors’ will likely fuel lawmakers’ and tech companies’ attempts to hinder the FBI’s ability to access people’s devices, a fight that has been brutal and heavily debated.
The FBI has fought with a number of companies in trying to gain more access to encrypted devices, including their 2016 legal battle with Apple, in which they wanted to get access to the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone records. The government eventually dropped the case thanks to a solution brought forward by a contracting firm, but the legal battle brought forward more evidence against the FBI regarding the accuracy of their claims when Then-Director James B. Comey exaggerated the cost of a particular phone-hacking solution.