The FBI has been unable to retrieve data from more than half of the devices it’s tried to access, Director Christopher Wray told an audience on Sunday.
All in all, the Bureau was unable to access the contents of about 6,900 devices in the first 11 months of the fiscal year, Wray said at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia over the weekend. Wray’s comments are just the latest piece of a long-standing debate about digital privacy.
“To put it mildly, this is a huge, huge problem,” Wray said, according to the Associated Press. “It impacts investigations across the board — narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation.”
Law enforcement agencies across the country have long complained about their inability to unlock and extract data from smartphones and other devices. But tech companies have, in general, been staunchly opposed to opening up access — saying they must protect their customer’s digital privacy.
Of course, this debate seemingly peaked in 2016, when the FBI and Justice Department tried to force Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the gunmen in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. Apple refused, saying that could set a “dangerous precedent” with serious implications for digital privacy. The FBI only stopped its endeavor when it was reportedly able to unlock the device with help from a third-party company.
It’s unclear how many of the more than 6,900 devices that the FBI couldn’t unlock were iPhones.
The FBI’s struggle also echoes trouble that other law enforcement and legal organizations have had in unlocking devices. Under the Trump Administration, the Justice Department has suggested that it will aggressively seek access to private information from tech companies, but has stopped short of clarifying what that could look like.
Apple, for its part, seems committed to the privacy of its users — even as the battle is far from over. “Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve dat protection, security and privacy,” the company wrote in a statement. “Sacrificing one or the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.”