EFF Asks FBI, DOJ To Turn Over Details On Thousands Of Locked Phones The FBI Seems Uninterested In Cracking

from the tearing-new-FOIA-holes-in-the-FBI's-narrative dept

The FBI’s growing number of uncracked phones remains a mystery. The agency claims it has nearly 8,000 phones in its possession which it can’t get into, despite multiple vendors offering services that can allegedly crack any iPhone and countless Android devices.

The push for mandated backdoors and/or weakened encryption continues, with successive FBI heads (James Comey, Chris Wray) declaring public safety is being threatened by the agency’s locked phone stockpile. This push seems doubly insincere given a recent Inspector General’s report, which revealed agency officials slow-walked the search for a third-party solution to unlock a phone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter.

Legislators have taken notice of the FBI’s disingenuous push for a legislative mandate. Back in April, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to the FBI asking what it was actually doing to access the contents of its growing collection of locked phones and why it insisted there were no other options when it was apparent vendors were offering phone-cracking solutions.

The EFF has questions as well. It has sent a FOIA request [PDF] to the FBI and DOJ asking for details on the FBI’s locked phone stash.

[W]e have submitted a FOIA request to the FBI, as well as the Offices of the Inspector General and Information Policy at DoJ. Among other things, we are asking the FBI to tell the public how they arrived at that 7,775 devices figure, when and how the FBI discovered that some outside entity was capable of hacking the San Bernardino iPhone, and what the FBI was telling Congress about its capabilities to hack into cellphones.

The FBI is in no hurry to make this information public, so it will probably take a lawsuit to get its response rolling. It still has yet to answer the questions posed to it by Congress, even as it continues to push its “going dark” narrative anywhere Director Chris Wray is given the opportunity to speak.

The ever-growing number of locked phones is a true mystery, considering the number saw exponential growth — swelling from under 1,000 phones in 2016 to nearly 8,000 phones only two years later. This happened without exponential growth in deployed encryption, but also closely tracks with the rise of James Comey’s “going dark” theory and the aftermath of the FBI’s failed attempt to secure a favorable precedential decision in the San Bernardino shooter case.

Whatever is revealed should answer a few questions. Unfortunately, the answer may end up being that the FBI truly isn’t interested in anything more than solutions mandated by the government.

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Comments on “EFF Asks FBI, DOJ To Turn Over Details On Thousands Of Locked Phones The FBI Seems Uninterested In Cracking”

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18 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

It would seem like there would be much better federal agencies for cracking iphone passwords than the FBI, such as those that specialize in signals intelligence and cryptographic analysis, like the NSA.

Maybe it’s a pride sort of thing, and the FBI just does not want to be upstaged by these other agencies.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'We must burn down your house to make your house secure.'

Law enforcement needs to worry more about protecting people by stopping crime before it happens, not just prosecuting the perp after the fact.

Which makes the anti-encryption push not just misguided but massively counter-productive, as it wouldn’t protect people from crime, it would lead to a massive explosion of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Locked" vs "Encrypted", 1000 -> 8000

Some possible explanations for the massive spike:

  • The agency switched to counting phones that have a PIN/password lock, even if the underlying storage is not encrypted. Remember, the goal is legislated access, so any existing barrier, no matter how easily defeated, must be marketed as impenetrable.
  • The agency stopped deploying whatever forensic tools it previously used, so the rate of seizures remained constant, but the backlog stopped shrinking. If they previously seized 5000 phones a year, but successfully accessed 4500 of those per year with their older tools, the rate of growth would have been only 500/year, jumping to 5000/year when they stop using their forensic tools.
  • The agency convinced other departments that seize phones to start sending those phones to the FBI’s central "unbreakable" pile rather than letting them languish in jurisdiction-specific evidence lockers around the country.
  • Agents (whether FBI, local, or both) have become far more aggressive in seizing anything that looks like a gun^H^H^Hcell phone, without regard to whether it is likely to have any evidentiary value.
Ben (profile) says:

Judicial push back?

"The FBI is in no hurry to make this information public, so it will probably take a lawsuit to get its response rolling."

When that lawsuit is presented to a judge, there should be a question of what plausible reason there could be to not release the count and how it was achieved. They should then be slapped down/fined/whatever to point out that they are wasting the time of the judicial branch by not following the FOIA law, which is rather hypocritical of the Department of Justice

Anonymous Coward says:

Officials now admit none of those statements are true

The agency claims it has nearly 8,000 phones in its possession which it can’t get into

FBI repeatedly overstated encryption threat figures to Congress, public”, by Devlin Barrett, Washington Post, May 22, 2018

The FBI has repeatedly provided grossly inflated statistics to Congress and the public about the extent of problems posed by encrypted cellphones . . .

Officials now admit none of those statements are true.

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