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Here we go again? FBI uses Texas shooting to revive phone encryption debate

Here we go again? FBI uses Texas shooting to revive phone encryption debate
[Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

The FBI’s Christopher Combs, speaking at a news conference in Texas today, said law enforcement has so far not been able to access the encrypted contents of the smartphone used by mass murderer Devin Patrick Kelley. Kelley shot and killed 26 people and wounded 20 others in an attack on a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday. Kelley, too, was killed.

The FBI isn’t saying what kind of phone Kelley used, because it doesn’t want to give “bad guys” any idea, Combs said. Still, the situation sounds a lot like a replay of the FBI’s 2015 legal joust with Apple in which it tried to compel the tech company to assist in breaking into the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Apple refused, and the FBI eventually needed the assistance of a private company to crack the phone.

Combs said the FBI’s current problem “highlights an issue that you have all heard about before with the advance of the technology and the phones and the encryptions. Law enforcement, whether it’s at the state, local, or federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones.”

Kelley’s phone was put on a plane to the FBI’s forensics lab in Quantico, Virginia, Monday night, where the FBI will use all available methods to bypass Apple’s stringent security protections. The bureau knows certain things about Kelley (including that he was ex-Air Force and shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun). But much remains unknown about his motives and possible ties to larger terrorist organizations. The FBI was trying to answer the same questions about Farook.

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