The inability of law enforcement authorities to access data from electronic devices due to powerful encryption is an “urgent public safety issue,” the head of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday.
In the fiscal year ended September, the FBI was unable to access data from nearly 7,800 devices despite possessing proper legal authority to pry them open, Reuters quoted Christopher Wray as saying in a speech at a cybersecurity conference in New York.
The agency was unable to access data in more than half of the devices that it tried to unlock due to encryption, Wray said, as he sought to renew a contentious debate over privacy and security.
“This is an urgent public safety issue,” the FBI director said, adding that a solution is “not so clear cut”.
The FBI supports strong encryption and information security broadly, Wray said, but described the current status quo as untenable.
“We face an enormous and increasing number of cases that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on electronic evidence,” Wray told an audience of FBI agents, international law enforcement representatives and private sector cyber professionals.
A solution requires “significant innovation,” Wray said, “but I just do not buy the claim that it is impossible.”
Wray’s remarks echoed those of his predecessor, James Comey, who before being fired by President Donald Trump in May frequently spoke about the dangers of unbreakable encryption, Reuters noted.
Officials have said that default encryption settings on cellphones and other devices hinder their ability to collect evidence needed to pursue criminals.
Technology companies and many digital security experts argue that the FBI’s attempts to require that devices allow investigators a way to access a criminal suspect’s cellphone would harm internet security and empower malicious hackers.
The matter came to a head in 2016 when the Justice Department tried unsuccessfully to force Apple to break into an iPhone used by a gunman during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
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