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Security

FBI repeatedly inflated cell phone encryption threat numbers

The bureau counted nearly 7,800 encrypted devices connected to crimes last year, when the number is probably closer to 2,000.

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The FBI has repeatedly grossly exaggerated the problems it encountered due to encrypted cell phones, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The bureau had claimed that its investigators were locked out of nearly 7,800 devices linked to criminal activity last year, when the number of devices is probably between 1,000 and 2,000, the Post reported. FBI director Christopher Wray cited the figure in reference to the Going Dark problem, in which law enforcement officials have the legal authority but not the technical ability to access encrypted communications.

Tech firms and privacy advocates argue that encryption is essential to secure personal information and communications. The government and law enforcement officials counter that encryption hurts their ability to investigate criminal and terrorist activity.

Law enforcement has repeatedly pressed for legislation requiring tech companies to provide "back doors" into devices. But tech companies have opposed those efforts, saying it would force them to deliberately weaken the security of their products for all users.

The FBI became aware of its phone-counting problem last month but still lacks an accurate count of how many encrypted phones it encountered in the course of investigations, officials told the Post.

In a statement, the FBI blamed the miscount on the program it used to count the devices.

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"The FBI's initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported,'' the FBI said Tuesday.

Despite its miscount, the FBI said encryption remains a threat to law enforcement efforts.

"Going Dark remains a serious problem for the FBI, as well as other federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners ... The FBI will continue pursuing a solution that ensures law enforcement can access evidence of criminal activity with appropriate legal authority."

Wray's recital of the inaccurate device total reignited a debate over privacy and security that began in 2016 when Apple refused to grant the FBI access to the contents of an encrypted iPhone belonging to a shooter in a terror attack in San Bernardino, California. The iPhone's encryption technology scrambles data and requires a passcode before allowing access.

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