James Comey may have been unceremoniously dumped by the Commander-in-Chief, but his device encryption legacy lives on.
The Justice Department is requesting more than $20 million in federal funding to bankroll efforts related to resolving the government’s continuing “Going Dark” problem, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Tuesday, signaling one of the Trump administration’s first attempts at tackling the issue of ubiquitous, hard-to-crack encryption amid growing concerns involving its impact on criminal investigations.
The request came during Rosenstein's testimony before the Appropriations Committee -- the place where all government officials perform their most sincere acts of begging. Not that the FBI was likely to be faced with budget cuts -- not with a "law and order" president running the country and overseen by an Attorney General who appears to believe we're currently engulfed in a massive drug-and-immigrant crimewave.
Here's Rosenstein's full "going dark" budget request:
Department of Justice must continue to take a leading role in enhancing the capabilities of the law enforcement and national security communities. This budget request will provide $21.6 million in funding to counter the “Going Dark” threat. The seriousness of this threat cannot be overstated. “Going Dark” refers to law enforcement’s increasing inability to lawfully access, collect, and intercept real-time communications and stored data, even with a warrant, due to fundamental shifts in communications services and technologies. This phenomenon is severely impairing our ability to conduct investigations and bring criminals to justice. The FBI will use this funding to develop and acquire tools for electronic device analysis, cryptanalytic capability, and forensic tools. The Department’s role has been to collect, house, analyze, and share critical data among our federal, state, local, and tribal partners.
Beg to differ, but the "seriousness of this threat" can be overstated. Comey did so on multiple occasions. Sometimes others -- mainly Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance -- followed suit. Both claimed to have a large number of phones in their possession that couldn't be cracked. Even if the underlying assumption that all of these phones contained valuable evidence directly related to investigations, one still had to wonder how hard investigators were trying to get into these phones. Or how many other options they'd explored before throwing their hands up in frustration and resigning the devices to a dismal future as press conference props.
Take, for instance, this quote from the Washington Times article:
Days before leaving office on May 9, Mr. Comey said federal investigators had legally seized more than 6,000 smartphones and electronic devices during a recent six-month span but found that 46 percent couldn’t be opened “with any technique.”
This stat is almost completely unbelievable. Documents obtained from local law enforcement agencies with much smaller budgets show investigators are finding multiple ways to obtain data and communications from locked phones. We're also not hearing these sentiments echoed by law enforcement officials at the local level. If it's this much of a problem for the FBI -- nearly half of all devices seized -- one would think smaller agencies would be seeing a much higher access failure rate, followed directly by public complaints about device encryption. But we're just not seeing that.
Hopefully whatever's handed to the FBI to solve its apparently singular "going dark" program is put to use wisely. But nothing about the "going dark" hype suggests this will be the case. It may just disappear into some sort of talking points war fund and used to promote the spread of "going dark" hysteria until enough legislators are on the hook. If the money is deployed intelligently, it could actually make a difference for the agency. But all evidence points to the agency angling for legislation and favorable court precedent that will make the rest of us pay the price for the agency's inability or unwillingness to see anything but darkness when confronted with technical hurdles.