- The Washington Times - Friday, July 1, 2016

Not a single one of the 4,148 wiretaps requested by state and federal authorities were denied during 2015, a government report revealed Thursday.

The Wiretap Report, an annual review released by the Office of the U.S. Courts, indicates investigators experienced few obstacles during the last calendar year, despite requesting 17 percent more wiretaps than the year before.

“A total of 4,148 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2015, with 1,403 authorized by federal judges and 2,745 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2014, the number approved by federal judges increased 10 percent in 2015, and the number approved by state judges increased 21 percent,” the report reads.

Wiretaps that targeted a telephone accounted for 94 percent (2,578 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2015, U.S. Courts said, the majority involving cellular phone numbers.

“No wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2015,” its authors added.

Amid a debate that intensified following the mass shooting in San Bernardino in December, however, the report also suggests authorities were thwarted by digital encryption only a handful of times during 2015. The number of instances where investigators encountered encryption while conducing state-approved wiretaps decreased from 22 in 2014 to 7 in 2015, while federal authorities bumped into encrypted communications six times in 2015. Of those 13 instances, investigators were unable to decrypt communications 11 times.

Despite encountering encryption barely a dozen times during 2015, state and federal law enforcement officials made routine appeals last year aimed at companies like Apple and Google that allow smartphone users the ability to protect their communications with strong end-to-end encryption. After an Apple iPhone was recovered from San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook in December, the FBI sued Apple in an effort to compel the company to assist investigators with encrypting the device before eventually acquiring the services of a third-party.

Weighing in on the Wiretap Report in the wake of its publication, however, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen told Motherboard on Thursday that the latest statistics “should not be surprising: agents now recognize when they are likely to encounter encryption and do not waste their time on fruitless endeavors.”

Instead, rather, the spokesman said a “better representation” of law enforcement’s growing inability to decipher encrypted data could be found by reviewing statistics concerning the bureau’s Computer Analysis Response Team (CART) and Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory (RCFL), two units that are frequently asked to help state and local police with technical requests, Motherboard reported.

“Over the 6-month period from October 1, 2015 – March 31, 2016, approximately 4,000 devices were submitted for digital forensic analysis. About 500 of those could not be unlocked,” Mr. Allen said.

Separately, government records published in April revealed that the NSA and FBI successfully acquired the authority to intercept phone calls and emails in response to each of the 1,457 request filed last year with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, ZDnet reported.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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