Cops Have Given The FBI 6,814 iPhones They Couldn’t Access In 2016

Why a few stump even the FBI remains elusive, however

(Illustration: Diana Quach)
Nov 11, 2016 at 1:52 PM ET

The FBI’s forensic agents are able to access most of the smartphones that stump other police agencies, FBI general counsel Jim Baker said Friday.

Baker announced the figures at a talk titled “Law Enforcement and Intelligence Access to Plaintext,” according to Kevin Bankston, Director of the Open Tech Institute, a think tank that focuses on privacy and surveillance, who attended and tweeted. The FBI’s communications office was closed Friday for Veteran’s Day, but one FBI spokesperson told Vocativ that such a figure “sounds about right” and that “I have no reason not to trust those numbers.”

The FBI was able to crack into most of the 6,814 phones that local, state, federal, and tribal police turned over, Baker said. Of those, 2095 required passcodes to defeat. Out of that subset, FBI analysts were able to access 1,210 phones.

FBI Director James Comey has long warned of the potential dangers of mobile phone encryption. Given that the agency doesn’t have a perfect track record, it’s warned that strong phone security can sometimes thwart investigations. Most tech security experts, by contrast, warn that potential laws against encryption would make smartphones vulnerable to criminal and government hackers.

It’s not clear how many of the 885 phones they were unable to access, if any, were due to device encryption. As noted by National Security writer Marcy Wheeler, Comey testified in 2015 that because of encryption on Android devices and iPhones, 71 percent of those devices “may be outside the reach of a warrant.” He didn’t provide full figures, however, and neither did Baker.

A spokesperson told Wheeler in September that a similar figure of 13 percent of devices being inaccessible to the FBI in 2016 was a catch-all for several scenarios, including where “the device is locked, data was deleted or encrypted, the hardware was damaged, or there were other challenges with accessing the data.” He declined to break the numbers down further.

Baker, at least, didn’t appear to share Comey’s enthusiasm for creating a “backdoor” to undermine a phone’s encryption. As Bankston said, Baker told listeners that “We don’t want to create flaws, we don’t want backdoors.”