The Justice Department is seeking $38 million in its proposed 2017 budget to help the FBI’s development of a workaround to data encryption — a need the FBI director highlighted with the disclosure that investigators have been unable to access information on the cellphone of one of the San Bernardino attackers.
The funding requested by the Justice Department would go toward the FBI’s “going dark” initiative, meant to address the inability of law enforcement to retrieve encrypted electronic data, such as text messages on cellphones, during investigations.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said Tuesday that the funds are envisioned as a way to research alternative means to access encrypted data and would pay for programs such as electronic device analysis and development of forensic tools.
“It’s to try to combat encryption. I’m not sure we will ever get around it,” Ms. Yates said during a briefing on the department’s budget.
The funding request is part of the Justice Department’s $29 billion budget proposal released Tuesday.
On the same day, FBI Director James B. Comey informed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that since the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people, investigators have not been able to gain access to information on one of the two killers’ cellphones.
“We still have one of those killers’ phones that we have not been able to open,” Mr. Comey said. “It’s been over two months now. We are still working on it.”
Investigators have sought to retrace the footsteps of Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, on the day of the attack and to dig into any communications they had during their planning of the bloodbath. The husband and wife were killed in a shootout with police. The damaged phones they left behind could store clues about what motivated them and whether they had any outside help in planning the attack.
Encryption scrambles communications to make it impossible to read messages without a key. Even companies that make encrypted phones are unable to unlock the data.
Law enforcement officials say encryption poses a potential problem for investigators as they ramp up surveillance of suspected Islamic State-inspired operatives in the U.S. to thwart any copycat attacks. But Mr. Comey said Tuesday that the vast majority of investigators stymied by encryption are local law enforcement trying to solve crimes in their communities.