FBI revamping plan for tackling ‘Going Dark’ encryption problem

March 28, 2018 GMT

The FBI plans to create a new unit within the bureau’s Operational Technology Division (OTD) aimed at better addressing the worsening “Going Dark” dilemma that’s hindered criminal investigators’ ability to access digital evidence stored on encrypted devices.

An internal FBI audit involving the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, found that federal investigators are revamping the way they pursue access data off encrypted devices including smartphones and computers, according to a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General’s report released Tuesday.

“During the course of our inquiry, we were informed that the FBI intends to add a new section in OTD to consolidate resources to address the ‘Going Dark’ problem and improve coordination between the units that work on computer and mobile devices,” the report states.

“We believe that such efforts to improve communication and coordination are worthwhile, and should help to avoid some of the disconnects we found occurred in this very important and high profile investigation,” the report said.

While authorities have wrestled for years with accessing data off encrypted devices, the issue took center stage following the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino when federal investigators found themselves unable to glean evidence from an Apple iPhone belonging to slain suspect Syed Farook. The FBI sued Apple in federal court in hopes of compelling the company’s complete assistance, but relented after receiving the assistance of a third-party security firm.

The inspector general “found that inadequate communication and coordination within OTD caused a delay in engaging all relevant OTD personnel in the search for a technical solution to the Farook iPhone problem, as well as the outside party that ultimately developed the method that unlocked the phone, issues that we learned the FBI has since taken steps to address,” the report said.

Based in Quantico, Virginia, the OTD “develops and deploys technology-based solutions to enable and enhance the FBI’s intelligence, national security and law enforcement operations,” according to the FBI’s website.

“Counter-encryption” is a primary function of the OTD’s digital forensics team, according to the website.

The FBI did not immediately return an email seeking further details about the new OTD division.

Federal investigations have increasingly been stymied in recent years by strong, hard-to-crack encryption used to protect data on devices like iPhone and Google Android phones, among others.

The FBI was unable to access data from 7,775 digital devices during fiscal 2017, constituting more than half of the total devices lawfully seized by federal investigators during that span, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in January.

“While the FBI and law enforcement happen to be on the front lines of this problem, this is an urgent public safety issue for all of us,” Mr. Wray said. “Because as horrifying as 7,800 in one year sounds, it’s going to be a lot worse in just a couple of years if we don’t find a responsible solution.”

A 2017 report published by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office found that the number of locked smartphones lawfully seized by local prosecutors surged nearly tenfold in recent years, from 78 in 2014 to 702 in the first 10 months of 2017, including 466 locked Apple iPhones and 236 locked devices running Google’s Android operating system.