FBI scrambling in wake of changing stories re cellphones

The FBI is not having a hard time convincing reasonable people that it has encountered difficulties accessing data from some cellphones that it has a court order to search.

Conversely, it is having a problem with this: getting its story straight on approximately how many phones are in its possession that resist attempts by the agency to unlock data that is allegedly tied to criminal activity.

On the one hand, agency principals and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have maintained that FBI personnel have been unable over the past year to override encryption software controls in about 7,800 smartphones linked with crime. The inability to do so, noted FBI Director Christopher A. Wray recently, presents “an urgent public safety issue.”

Critics of the FBI’s strident demand that every phone in the country subject to a court order be searchable via encryption overrides flatly question just how the serious the matter is.

In a nutshell, they don’t believe the FBI.

Neither, ironically, does the FBI itself.

In fact, the agency has stunningly contradicted its own estimate several times recently. An official FBI statement noted just last week that the 7,800 number was a “significant over-counting of mobile devices reported.” It blamed what one national media report called “grossly inflated statistics” on programming errors. Many critics doubt that, suspecting rather an intentional effort to deceive Congress and the general public.

And agency credibility on the matter is certainly undermined further by its own earlier estimate that the total number of locked phones was fewer than 900. That figure was subsequently adjusted upward in the recently debunked agency utterances by nearly 90 percent.

Federal legislators are clearly alarmed by the agency’s inconsistent proclamations and backtracking. Lawmakers are reportedly soliciting further information that they intend to disseminate widely within Congress for review and possible action.