FBI Admits It's Been Using A Highly-Inflated Number Of Locked Devices To Push Its 'Going Dark' Narrative
from the seriously-fuck-these-guys dept
Call it a lie. Call it a misrepresentation. Call it a convenient error. Call it what you want. Just don’t call it a fact. Devlin Barrett at the Washington Post delivers a bombshell: the thousands of phones the FBI supposedly just can’t crack despite a wealth of tech solutions at its disposal? It’s nowhere near as many as consecutive FBI directors have claimed.
The FBI has repeatedly provided grossly inflated statistics to Congress and the public about the extent of problems posed by encrypted cellphones, claiming investigators were locked out of nearly 7,800 devices connected to crimes last year when the correct number was much smaller, probably between 1,000 and 2,000, The Washington Post has learned.
This number aligns more with reality than the frequent claims the number of locked phones was nearing 8,000 devices. In 2016, the FBI reported it was only locked out of around 880 devices. Less than two years later, it was stating it had 7,800 impregnable devices in its possession.
This exponential increase followed the FBI’s failure to convince a court Apple should be ordered to break a phone’s encryption whenever the government wanted access. This courtroom demand was predicated on a deliberately backburnered quest to find a tech solution from a third party, as a recently-released Inspector General’s report revealed.
So, we know the FBI can’t be trusted to tell the whole story when quizzed about its “going dark” assertions. Now, we know the FBI can’t be trusted to count physical devices accurately.
The FBI first became aware of the miscount about a month ago and still does not have an accurate count of how many encrypted phones they received as part of criminal investigations last year, officials said. Last week, one internal estimate put the correct number of locked phones at 1,200, though officials expect that number to change as they launch a new audit, which could take weeks to complete, according to people familiar with the work.
“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. The bureau said the problem stemmed from the use of three distinct databases that led to repeated counting of phones. Tests of the methodology conducted in April 2016 failed to detect the flaw, according to people familiar with the work.
The FBI’s count was inflated by bad software and sloppy record keeping. But it had no incentive to fix it. Even if the error was never detected by the methodology test, someone should have asked how the FBI’s stash of locked phones suddenly exploded from less than 900 to nearly 8,000 in 18 months. But, given the IG’s findings about its slow-walked search for outside tech solutions in the Apple court battle, any red flags were probably ignored in favor of pushing the most dramatic “going dark” narrative possible. Why ask why? Just go with the more jaw-dropping number, even if there’s no physical evidence to back the claim.
This discovery was likely prompted by FOIA requests and demands for answers from Congress. Without this outside pressure, the FBI had no motivation to double check its math. Now that it must answer to both Congressional oversight and tenacious members of the public, it has finally decided to audit its locked phone stash.
AG Sessions has also played a part in expanding the “going dark” narrative. He had this to say earlier this month, painting a picture of thousands of latent threats stored in FBI evidence lockers.
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.
Except they’re obviously not. Most of the devices don’t even exist. Therefore, most of the threats don’t exist. And this statement can’t be definitively made about the number of actual devices the FBI has on hand because the FBI has yet to provide any info whatsoever about these devices or their relation to ongoing or stalled investigations. We don’t know how many are tied to “threats to the American people” and how many are tied to bog standard investigatory work, like drug busts or white collar crime or any number of other non-threatening criminal activities the Bureau investigates.
The “going dark” narrative is a house of cards erected on a loose bedding of bullshit. It always has been. Now the FBI is slowly being forced to admit it has nothing to offer but shadow play in which a small pile of phones is stacked carefully to portray a towering, monstrous threat to the American public. At best, the FBI handled its precious cargo of anti-encryption warriors extremely carelessly. At worst, it looked at the incongruous leap in locked device numbers and figured it better served the “going dark” narrative than an accurate count would.