FBI investigators have failed to gain access to nearly 7,000 encrypted mobile devices in the last year, the agency’s director, Christopher Wray, has revealed.
Speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference on Sunday, Wray described the technology as a “huge, huge problem”.
“It impacts investigations across the board — narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime, child exploitation,” he said.
More than half of the devices investigators attempted to access in the first 11 months of the current fiscal year were encrypted.
“I get it, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between encryption and the importance of giving us the tools we need to keep the public safe,” Wray added.
The newly-installed director’s comments mark the latest intervention in an ongoing debate about the extent to which technology firms should deploy encryption.
The UK government has tended to focus on the issue of end-to-end encryption, which secures messages in services such as WhatsApp, rather than device encryption, which encrypts files when devices are locked.
But the latter issue came to the fore in the US last year when Apple refused to unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said the US government had demanded the company take an unprecedented step that “threatens the security of our customers”.
The FBI eventually gained access to the device after hiring a third party firm that had identified a way to crack the encryption.