Federal Bureau of Investigation chief: Encryption is 'urgent public safety issue'

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The inability of law enforcement authorities to access data from electronic devices due to powerful encryption is an "urgent public safety issue", FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday as he sought to renew a contentious debate over privacy and security.

Wray's official Bureau portrait.

The FBI was unable to view evidence stored on almost 7,800 electronic devices in the fiscal year ending September 30 despite having a warrant, Wray said at a cybersecurity conference at Fordham University.

He called on technology companies to sit down with law enforcement to devise a workable solution, urging them to "come to the table with the approach toward finding a solution - not to build systems created to prevent a solution".

"FBI examiners were presented with over 6,000 devices for which we have a lawful authority search warrant or court order to open, and [in] 46 percent of those cases we could not open those devices with any technique", said former FBI Director James B. Comey, in testimony last May before the Senate Judiciary Committee on FBI oversight.

But both practices have become very hard in the past few years thanks to the virtually unbreakable encryption found in today's smartphones, computers and digital communications.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va., Dec. 15, 2017.

In 2016, the FBI dropped a legal challenge against Apple, which refused to create a special version of its iOS mobile operating system to let investigators access an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters (see Legal Issues Persist as FBI Backs Off in iPhone Case).

Such efforts have been resisted by tech companies and privacy advocates.

The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, both in the USA and overseas, claim that this lack of access protects drug dealers, kidnappers, murderers and terrorists. "We need to find a solution".

The FBI needs the private sector's help, Wray said. We need to have companies comply with lawful court orders.

Finding a solution to the problem will require "significant innovation", Wray said, before adding that he does not "buy the claim that it is impossible".

Wray points out that American technology companies have routinely succeeded at overcoming barriers that seemed insurmountable - as long as the will was there. Citing more than 7,700 locked devices the Federal Bureau of Investigation can't get into, Mr. Wray said he doesn't believe experts who claim you can't weaken encryption without putting everyone at risk. "I reject the notion that there could be such a place that no matter what kind of controls we have, we can't protect innocent people". But the issue has grown more pressing, it says, with the advent of phones that not even companies can unlock because they do not hold the encryption key. Apple has also removed some VPN apps from the iOS App Store in mainland China at government request. Yet those companies resist far less intrusive and more transparent USA government requests.

The government has said it is not interested in mandating the creation of backdoors, though like Wray it has a somewhat narrow definition of a backdoor. "They're in the process of looking at the phone".