Since The FBI Can't Be Bothered To Do It, Motherboard Has Compiled A Database Of Attempts To Access Encrypted IPhones

from the thanks-for-nothing,-g-men dept

The FBI continues to avoid playing its hand honestly in the "going dark" debate. It continues to do things like call strong encryption "warrant-proof" encryption, damning it by associating its very existence with unlawfulness. FBI Director Chris Wray continues to claim he's not asking for encryption backdoors while calling for encryption backdoors. And for nearly two years, the FBI has refused to update its erroneous count of uncracked devices in its possession.

The last time the FBI delivered a number, it claimed it had about 7,800 devices in its possession that it couldn't get into. After being questioned by Congress about its claims, the FBI went back to count devices and found its tracking method had resulted in a severe miscount. No real number has been delivered yet, but the early estimate was that the actual number was slightly over 1,000 devices. Not quite the apocalypse the FBI needed us (and our Congressional reps) to believe it was.

As usual, when the government fails, private citizens step in to do the work that government agencies are spending our tax dollars not doing. The DOJ and FBI have spent years hardly bothering to compile an accurate accounting of police use of deadly force, resulting in a small cottage industry of journalists, activists, and hobbyists doing the work for them.

The same thing can be said about the "going dark" narrative. The FBI loves the narrative but can't be bothered to provide any hard data backing its assertions that encryption is destroying the criminal justice system. So, it's left up to people like Joseph Cox and his team members at Motherboard to try to get a grip on how often device encryption is disrupting criminal investigations.

Using information gathered from more than 500 iPhone search warrants and other court records, Motherboard has compiled a database that gives readers a better idea of encryption's impact on law enforcement investigations -- a narrative stripped of all the competing narratives, if you will.

In conclusion, Going Dark is a land of contrasts:

[T]he records compiled by Motherboard show that the capability to unlock iPhones is a fluid issue, with an ebb and flow of law enforcement sometimes being able to access devices and others not. The data solidifies that some law enforcement officials do have trouble accessing data stored on iPhones.

What this doesn't answer is the question the FBI and DOJ want answered in their favor: should access to encrypted content and communications be guaranteed? Is it better for citizens to be less secure but possibly more "safe" by making encryption inherently flawed? Of course, the answer is "no," but those at the top of the law enforcement food chain are never going to stop arguing that their lofty ideals should trump the rights and protections of all the little people below them. Only a criminal would want encryption because innocent people have nothing to hide and all of that garbage.

But Motherboard is providing a valuable service -- one the government refuses to do itself: it's providing data about the law enforcement v. encryption battle which should better inform everyone on both sides of the issue. For all of its insistence that encryption is an evil that's not even necessary, the FBI has done next to nothing than provide a handful of anecdotes about its experience with encrypted devices. And for more than a half-decade, these anecdotes have been backed by extremely faulty numbers. Let's hope throwing a little more reality around will bring the agency back to earth -- and more in agreement with the millions of people who ensure it stays funded.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: chris wray, encryption, fbi, going dark, law enforcement, william barr

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 18 Mar 2020 @ 7:41am

    One does wonder how many prosecutions were stopped b/c the almighty phone held the only evidence.

    Then there is the question of : Did they just need to unlock the phone b/c its the only way to explain how they already had the data from another source?

    They talk about terrorists going dark... exactly how many terrorists are inside the US that you are aware of but can only track by cell phone?

    The white terrorists aren't going dark, hell they create FaceBook Events inviting everyone to come on down for the lynching giving a month warning its coming and the law only shows up after the 3rd 911 call.

    The guy who ride his bicycle past a home that was robbed who was their main focus b/c of the google warrant dragnet also highlights a "reverse" CSI moment we are seeing in law enforcement. The tech will hand them the answer, with no effort on their part.

    Street person arrested for killing a man in his home b/c of touch DNA, they tried railroading him hard only to discover that touch DNA from an ambulance ride was what "placed" him on the scene. But the law didn't care to look at that, just the result & then support that result by not looking at anything else.

    Bombing suspect in Madrid (IIRC) the never fail fingerprints recovered made a US citizen who was no where near the bombing the prime suspect b/c they were his fingerprints... oh wait they aren't the perfect single identifier of people we claimed for years, after turning that guys life upside down & destroying his good name.

    We only reward wins, this is why they rarely push cases against those able to fight back on a level playing field. Why investigate, we can just unlock the phone & get everything. Yeah we could send people out and gather the same information from other sources, but thats hard... just let us decide who is a good guy and who is a bad guy & then access all of their stuff so we can go to an early lunch.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2020 @ 8:21am

    Can't be bothered to do it?
    I bet they've already done it, they just don't want anybody to know about it, much less see it.

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

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 18 Mar 2020 @ 10:19am


      IIRC they had multiple different systems tracking them that don't talk to each other so it was hard to understand how many they actually have.

      One of those things where perhaps it would be a best practice to unify record keeping & reporting systems so they could spend more time doing the job instead of checking 45 different sub systems to gather information.

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

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)


Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.