- Jenny Cheng/Business Insider/Bloomberg Law/YouTube
- The New York FBI’s cyber division chief, Aristedes Mahairas, has voiced frustration with big tech companies for making it harder to investigate crime.
- He told Business Insider that every device the FBI is prevented from accessing represents “at least one victim.”
- Tech companies, like Apple and Facebook, have been extremely reticent to lift barriers for investigators because they fear it will compromise user security.
- Mahairas acknowledged that there is a balance to be struck between police work and wider public security, but said the FBI is “knocking on the front door” with court orders.
- It comes as Apple closed a security loophole that will prevent police from accessing iPhones.
A senior FBI agent has voiced frustration with big tech companies, such as Apple and Facebook, for making it harder for law enforcement to investigate crime.
The FBI has consistently lamented encryption as a roadblock to accessing suspected criminals’ devices, with director Christopher Wray saying last year that it was “a huge, huge problem.”
The New York FBI’s cyber division chief, Aristedes Mahairas, told Business Insider that “every phone that is encrypted that potentially has evidence on it, that we cannot action, that represents at least one victim.”
His comments were made in an interview last month, before Apple rolled out an iPhone update that would prevent police and other investigators from accessing devices through the Lightning charging port.
Asked if encryption can be frustrating, Mahairas said: “How can it not be frustrating? If I arrested an individual for a crime that has a phone, or a laptop that I cannot get access to despite a lawful court order, that electronic device represents a victim that potentially may not have justice.”
While the FBI can obtain court orders that permit them to access a device, such as an iPhone, investigators often struggle to crack the encryption. The FBI has tried on several occasions to obtain court orders that would compel tech firms like Apple either to unlock devices, or write software that would allow investigators to access them. Its efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
Mahairas acknowledged that there is a balance to be struck between police work and wider public security. He said the different factions – including policymakers, law enforcement, tech companies, and service providers – should come together for talks.
“It’s a sensitive topic, I don’t know if there’s an easy answer, but I do believe that the relevant stakeholders need to be brought together so they can have that rational discussion to get the balance between privacy and public safety,” he added.
FBI chief Wray said the agency failed to extract data from around 7,000 devices over an 11-month period between 2016 and 2017, but the Washington Post reported that this was significantly inflated and the true figure is more like 2,000 at the most. Either way, tech companies are extremely reticent to lift barriers for investigators.
In 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook said FBI attempts to access information on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone was “chilling.” He said the FBI had asked to “build a backdoor to the iPhone,” which Apple decided was “too dangerous to create.”
Facebook has also rebuffed efforts to access information on WhatsApp and other services. In a gutsy defence of encryption last month, it said a “backdoor” for law enforcement agencies to access messages of those suspected of wrongdoing would be impossible to create without it being “discovered and exploited by bad actors.”
Mahairas said: “We’re not looking for a backdoor, we’re knocking on the front door. We’re saying we want access to the device and we want access to the device consistent with the order that was issued by a judge.
“It makes my job easier when the court orders are being followed. Encryption prevents me having natural access on my own. But if the court is saying I have the authority consistent with the law to have access to it, but there’s somebody else who can provide the decryption to give me that, is that person subject to that court order or not? That’s the debate we’re having.”
Although not directly involved in discussions with tech companies, Mahairas said they are responsive to talks. “I know the directors are constantly engaged. I know we are speaking with each other and trying to find ways to work together so that everyone’s interests are where they need to be,” he added.