The Justice Department is requesting more than $20 million in federal funding to bankroll efforts related to resolving the government’s continuing “Going Dark” problem, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Tuesday, signaling one of the Trump administration’s first attempts at tackling the issue of ubiquitous, hard-to-crack encryption amid growing concerns involving its impact on criminal investigations.
While federal investigators have fought for years to counter the so-called “Going Dark” phenomenon — the government’s growing inability to access and decipher digitally encrypted communications — Mr. Rosenstein said during a Justice Department budget-request hearing Tuesday that resources needed to reverse the trend are required now more than ever.
“The seriousness of this threat cannot be overstated,” Mr. Rosenstein told the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. “This phenomenon is severely impairing our ability to conduct investigations and bring criminals to justice.”
The Justice Department is requesting $21.6 million specifically towards countering its “Going Dark” program, Mr. Rosenstein testified in his prepared remarks.
“The FBI will use this funding to develop and acquire tools for electronic device analysis, cryptanalytic capability and forensic tools,” he added, in turn enabling the Justice Department to continues its “leading role in enhancing the capabilities of the law enforcement and national security communities.”
Mr. Rosenstein was not initially slated to testify Tuesday, but appeared after the hearing’s previously scheduled witness, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, canceled in lieu of speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee with respect to the Trump administration and its purported ties to Russia, as well the president’s abrupt firing last month of former FBI Director James Comey.
Days before leaving office on May 9, Mr. Comey said federal investigators had legally seized more than 6,000 smartphones and electronic devices during a recent six-month span but found that 46 percent couldn’t be opened “with any technique.”
“That means half of the devices that we encounter in terrorism cases, in counterintelligence cases, in gang cases, in child pornography cases, cannot be opened with any technique,” Mr. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3. “That is a big problem. And so the shadow continues to fall.”
The vast majority of smartphones currently sold in the U.S. run either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating systems, the likes of which allow customers the ability to protect their digital contents and communications from eavesdroppers with security-minded technology including strong encryption. While hailed by privacy and security proponents, however, the issue became a hot-button issue last year after federal authorities found themselves unable at first to access the contents of an Apple iPhone recovered from the scene of a December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
“If Apple doesn’t give info to authorities on the terrorists I’ll only be using Samsung until they give info,” President Trump tweeted from the campaign trail February. “Boycott all Apple products until such time as Apple gives cellphone info to authorities regarding radical Islamic terrorist couple from Cal.”
“The Obama administration was not in a position where they were seeking legislation,” Mr. Comey told lawmakers last month when asked about the possibility of establishing a legal statue to resolve the Going Dark dilemma. “I don’t know yet how President Trump intends to approach this. I know he spoke about it during the campaign, I know he cares about it, but it’s premature for me to say.”