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(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
chris wray, doj, encryption, fbi, going dark

Companies:
eff



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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  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 17 May 2018 @ 3:31am

    "The FBI's growing number of uncracked phones remains a mystery."

    Not really. They don't actually need to get into those phones to carry out the investigations related to them, but they do need large numbers to scare certain people into giving into what they demand.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 4:03am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 4:35am

      Re:

      Or maybe they want to be able to say "hand over your phone citizen" and inspect that persons life history there and then..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 5:17am

    8,000 counts of theft

    I would like to believe that the FBI lawfully obtained all of those phones but seriously doubt that they paid for any of them. I wonder how many monthly payments those 8k phones add up to for the citizens deprived of their property without due process.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 6:56am

    The last episode of blue bloods tried to address this issue.
    If the police would actually do their jobs to begin with, then what is on a cell phone doesn't matter.

    Ineffective police detectives are no reason to give up your right to privacy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 6:59am

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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 17 May 2018 @ 7:38am

      Re:

      So your proposing a 'pre-crime' unit? "Citizen, we think your thinking about the possibility that someday you might commit a crime, therefore we are declaring you guilty and impose the maximum punishment, stand against that wall, we have all the proof we need."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 7:48am

        Re: Re:

        Maybe that is not exactly what they want but instilling the fear into you that such policy would create is, without a doubt, exactly what they want to accomplish.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 17 May 2018 @ 11:48am

      '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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 17 May 2018 @ 7:17am

    Going Dark...

    But, can't you see it...the criminal going dark is the FBI, not the people they investigate! lol

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 10:34am

    FBI: "Who is EFF?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2018 @ 11:57am

    "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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ben (profile), 17 May 2018 @ 1:00pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2018 @ 5:41pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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