- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The FBI has obtained a cellphone belonging to Texas church shooter Devin Patrick Kelley but can’t access its contents, opening a potential showdown between federal investigators and mobile device makers like the one that unfolded after the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

Kelley’s phone was turned over to the bureau and transported Monday evening to its office in Quantico, Virginia, said Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio bureau, during a news conference Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, at this point in time, we are unable to get into that phone,” Mr. Combs told reporters.

“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard about before,” Mr. Combs said. “With the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions, law enforcement — whether that’s at the state, local or federal level — is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”

Criminal investigators notably faced a similar dilemma after finding themselves unable to glean data from an Apple iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, one of two terrorists responsible for killing 14 people during the San Bernardino shooting spree nearly two years ago.

Farook’s phone was protected by security features offered by Apple, and the Department of Justice sued the company in federal court in hopes of forcing it to unlock his device.

The government’s lawsuit against Apple ultimately was abandoned in March 2016 after the Justice Department reportedly paid a private contractor upwards of $1 million to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. But security measures increasingly offered by mobile device makers have posed plenty of other problems for federal investigators ever since.

“Today, thousands of seized devices sit in storage, impervious to search warrants,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said last month. “Over the past year, the FBI was unable to access about 7,500 mobile devices submitted to its Computer Analysis and Response Team, even though there was legal authority to do so.”

Before he was fired this year, former FBI Director James B. Comey warned that federal investigators increasingly were finding themselves outpaced by criminals using encrypted products and services to evade authorities, testifying days before his termination that President Trump’s predecessor had punted on seeking a legislative solution.

“The Obama administration was not in a position where they were seeking legislation,” Mr. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

Mr. Combs declined to identify the type of cellphone seized from the Texas church shooter, saying: “I don’t want to tell every bad guy out there what phone to buy.”

“I can assure you that we’re working very hard to get into the phone, and that will continue until we find an answer,” he said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to be, to be quite honest with you. It could be tomorrow, it could be a week, it could be a month, we just don’t know yet. But we’re going to keep working on that phone and the other digital media that we have.”

Kelley, 26, went on a shooting spree Sunday morning in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, east of San Antonio, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others before committing suicide, according to police.

Like Farook, the San Bernardino shooter, Kelley died before he could be questioned by investigators, making his mobile phone a potential gold mine for authorities looking for evidence.

Investigators may have other means to get the information they seek. If the Texas gunman backed up his phone online, they can get a copy of that with a legal order — usually a warrant. They also can get warrants for any accounts he had at server-based internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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