FBI admits it has far fewer unlockable iPhones than claimed

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FBI wants Apple's help to unlock iPhones used by suspected Pensacola shooter
The FBI's argument why it needs an iPhone 'backdoor' just got a lot weaker.
Photo: Dave Newman/Flickr CC

FBI director Christopher Wray has said multiple times that his agency has 7,775 locked phones involved in investigations that it can’t access. Now, the law enforcement agency admits the number is far smaller.

Previously, Wray argued that the large number of unlockable devices is why Apple needs to build a ‘backdoor’ into iOS for police.

Wray’s erroneous figure came from a combination of human and computer error. The FBI admits it was counting each device several times. It kept multiple databases of phones it couldn’t unlock, and didn’t realize there were duplicates.

“The FBI’s initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported,” the agency told The Washington Post.

FBI’s locked iPhone problem

The FBI has had a beef with Apple going back years. In 2016, the federal agency got a court order to force Apple to unlock the iPhone 5c of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Apple CEO Tim Cook resisted, but shortly thereafter the federal agency was able to access the contents of the phone with outside help, almost certainly the Israeli company Cellebrite.

Still, the FBI has continued to seek ways to access locked iPhones. Apple’s device is a problem for law enforcement because any iOS computer that’s locked with a passcode automatically encrypts everything stored on it. The only way to access the data is with the passcode.

The agency seems a bit obsessed, to the point where Congress recently stepped in to defend Apple and criticize the FBI. A bi-partisan group of 10 representatives accused the law enforcement agency of over-stating difficulties stemming from unlocked iPhones involved in crimes.

That’s now blatantly obvious, as the FBI has come clean that it actually only has somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 locked iPhones and similar devices, not the nearly 8,000 it claimed before. An audit going on now will arrive at a more specific figure.