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FBI Tells Congress It Needs Hackers To Keep Up With Tech Company Encryption

A high ranking FBI official tells Congress that developing solutions to penetrate encrypted devices is too costly and sometimes requires expertise that the FBI does not have.

Posted on April 19, 2016, at 12:40 p.m. ET

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

A high ranking technology official with the FBI told members of Congress Tuesday that the agency is incapable of cracking locked phones and devices on its own, even with additional resources.

Amy Hess, the agency’s executive assistant director for science and technology told a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that encrypted communications continue to pose a challenge to the American law enforcement, and to the safety of the American public. But when asked by lawmakers to provide a practical solution beyond the FBI’s talking points, she said that the cooperation of technology companies would be necessary.

The Congressional hearing on encryption follows the high-profile legal battle between Apple and the Justice Department over access to a locked iPhone. The device, suspected by federal investigators of containing evidence in an ongoing terrorism investigation, was used by Syed Farook who killed 14 people last year in San Bernardino. While the legal conflict in that particular case dissipated after the FBI was shown by an outside party how to penetrate the device, the larger debate over granting the government special access to encrypted data remains unresolved.

Several lawmakers, including Rep. Diana DeGette, invoked the San Bernardino episode, and asked why the FBI could not improve it’s own expertise in cracking encrypted devices. If it were to do that, she argued, the agency would no longer need to challenge technology companies, like Apple, in court or purchase hacks from outside parties.

Hess countered that the types of one-off exploits needed to crack encrypted devices may require resources unavailable to the FBI. “Those solutions may be time intensive, they may not eventually be effective, they may require an additional amount of resources, or an additional amount of skill, in order to get to those solutions,” she said.

When asked by Rep. DeGette if the FBI could develop those capabilities with enough resources, Hess said, “No. Ma’am.”

"I don’t see that as possible. I think that we really need the cooperation of industry and we need the cooperation of academia,” Hess said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.