FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency's inability to crack over half of encrypted smartphones it tried accessing during the first 11 months of the last fiscal year "a huge, huge problem," Associated Press reported on Monday. Mr. Wray's comments were made as part of his speech given at the Philadelphia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police conference earlier this week, with the FBI head immediately attracting criticism from privacy advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and some other industry watchers.
The 50-year-old didn't advocate against the very concept of privacy but said that the FBI's inability to access mobile devices it believes warrant an investigation is preventing federal probes spanning everything from human trafficking and child exploitation to narcotics and other forms of organized crime. The FBI Director also acknowledged that "a balance" between user privacy and federal authority must be found in order for U.S. law enforcement agencies to be able to lead their investigations uninhibited while still not infringing on citizens' privacy but offered no concrete proposals for how to make that happen. Mr. Wray's Monday speech also saw him advocate for a renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that's set to expire at the end of the year, with the FBI Director saying the intelligence community would have "another blind spot" if the U.S. Congress doesn't vote to uphold the law without making any radical changes to it.
The issue of mobile privacy and FBI's jurisdiction in regards to accessing smartphones and other digital products has been aggressively debated in the United States for several years now, with many consumer electronics manufacturers and internet companies remaining adamant that they will not create backdoors into their products and services for the federal government to exploit. Thousands of smartphones are still resisting the agency's hacking attempts on a yearly basis, though many of them are also successfully cracked. Google Manager of Information Security Heather Adkins recently said that state-sponsored threats like hacking tools created by federal agencies are just as dangerous as attack vectors designed by malicious hackers, if not even more so. The issue itself doesn't appear to be any closer to being resolved compared to last year when Apple clashed with Washington over its refusal to unlock an iPhone used in the 2015 San Bernardino attack, though the FBI ultimately managed to crack that particular device without the Cupertino-based technology giant's help.