- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2017

Nearly half of all smartphones and other digital devices lawfully seized by the FBI are useless to federal investigators because they’re protected with encryption, FBI Director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Of more than 6,000 devices obtained by the FBI between Oct. 1 and March 31, Mr. Comey said 46 percent were safeguarded by strong encryption that renders them unreadable to authorities.

“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 panel.

“That is a big problem,” he added. “And so the shadow continues to fall.”

Lawmakers have weighed options to alleviate the FBI’s so-called “going dark” problem for years. Myriad security and privacy concerns hindered attempts to legislate encryption during former President Obama’s tenure in office, however, all the while Apple and Google enabled the widespread rollout of digital encryption by enabling the feature by default on their bestselling smartphones.

“The Obama administration was not in a position where they were seeking legislation,” Mr. Comey told lawmakers Wednesday. “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.”

Indeed, Mr. Trump encouraged a boycott against Apple last year when federal investigators found themselves unable to obtain data from an encrypted iPhone recovered from the scene of a terror attack in San Bernardino, California. The FBI ultimately accessed the evidence with the help of outside security researchers, albeit at a cost of $900,000, Senator Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Ms. Feinstein asked the FBI director if the government should legislate encryption Wednesday, to which he responded: “we aren’t there now.”

“We’ve had very good, open and productive conversations with the private sector over the last 18 months about this issue, because everybody realized we care about the same things,” Mr. Comey said Wednesday. “We all love privacy. We all care about public safety.”

“What we want to work with manufacturers on is to figure out how can we accommodate both interests in a sensible way? How can we optimize the privacy, security features of their devices and allow court orders to be complied with? We’re having some good conversations. I don’t know where they’re going to end up, frankly. I could imagine a world that ends up with legislation saying, if you’re going to make devices in the United States, you figure out how to comply with court orders, or maybe we don’t go there. But we are having productive conversations, right now I think,” Mr. Comey said.

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