FBI chief Christopher Wray calls unbreakable encryption 'urgent public safety issue'

NEW YORK, Jan 9 (Reuters) - The inability of law enforcement authorities to access data from electronic devices due to powerful encryption is an "urgent public safety issue," FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday as he sought to renew a contentious debate over privacy and security.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was unable to access data from nearly 7,800 devices in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 with technical tools despite possessing proper legal authority to pry them open, a growing figure that impacts every area of the agency's work, Wray said during a speech at a cyber security conference in New York.

The FBI has been unable to access data in more than half of the devices that it tried to unlock due to encryption, Wray added.

"This is an urgent public safety issue," Wray added, while saying that a solution is "not so clear-cut."

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American FBI directors through the years
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American FBI directors through the years
J. Edgar Hoover: 1924-1972
William Sessions: 1987-1993
James Comey: 2013-2017
Robert S. Mueller III: 2001-2013
William D. Ruckelshaus (Acting): April 1973 - July 1973
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William H. Webster: 1978-1987
Louis J. Freeh: 1993-2001
William J. Burns: 1921-1924
Thomas J. Pickard (Acting): June 2001-September 2001
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Technology companies and many digital security experts have said that the FBI's attempts to require that devices allow investigators a way to access a criminal suspect's cellphone would harm internet security and empower malicious hackers. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have expressed little interest in pursuing legislation to require companies to create products whose contents are accessible to authorities who obtain a warrant.

Wray's comments at the International Conference on Cyber Security were his most extensive yet as FBI director about the so-called Going Dark problem, which his agency and local law enforcement authorities for years have said bedevils countless investigations. Wray took over as FBI chief in August.

The FBI supports strong encryption and information security broadly, Wray said, but described the current status quo as untenable.

"We face an enormous and increasing number of cases that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on electronic evidence," Wray told an audience of FBI agents, international law enforcement representatives and private sector cyber professionals. A solution requires "significant innovation," Wray said, "but I just do not buy the claim that it is impossible."

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Wray's remarks echoed those of his predecessor, James Comey, who before being fired by President Donald Trump in May frequently spoke about the dangers of unbreakable encryption.

Tech companies and many cyber security experts have said that any measure ensuring that law enforcement authorities are able to access data from encrypted products would weaken cyber security for everyone.

U.S. officials have said that default encryption settings on cellphones and other devices hinder their ability to collect evidence needed to pursue criminals.

The matter came to a head in 2016 when the Justice Department tried unsuccessfully to force Apple Inc to break into an iPhone used by a gunman during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The Trump administration at times has taken a tougher stance on the issue than former President Barack Obama's administration. U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in October chastised technology companies for building strongly encrypted products, suggesting Silicon Valley is more willing to comply with foreign government demands for data than those made by their home country.

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President Trump delivers remarks on the national security strategy
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a national security strategy speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a national security strategy speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg
U.S. President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a national security strategy speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg
Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, center, speaks with attendees before a national security strategy speech by U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump waves after speaking during a national security strategy speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, arrives before a national security strategy speech by U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, center, speaks with attendees before a national security strategy speech by U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a national security strategy speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The national security strategy, a document mandated by Congress, will describe the Trump administration's approach to a range of global challenges including North Korea's nuclear program, international terrorism, Russian aggression and China's rising influence. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (C) chats with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (L) and Senator John Cornyn (R) as he arrives for a speech by US President Donald Trump at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on December 18, 2017. President Donald Trump rolled out his first 'National Security Strategy', a combative document designed to put meat on the bones of his 'America First' sloganeering. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the military and national security staffs attend a speech by US President Donald Trump about his administration's National Security Strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC, December 18, 2017. President Donald Trump rolled out his first 'National Security Strategy', a combative document designed to put meat on the bones of his 'America First' sloganeering. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18: U.S. President Donald Trump is introduced before delivering a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building December 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. The president was expected to outline a new strategy for U.S. foreign policy through the release of the periodic National Security Strategy, a document that aims to outline major national security concerns and the administration's plans to deal with them. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18: U.S. President Donald Trump walks off the stage after delivering a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building December 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. The president was expected to outline a new strategy for U.S. foreign policy through the release of the periodic National Security Strategy, a document that aims to outline major national security concerns and the administration's plans to deal with them. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Will Dunham)

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