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Accuracy problem: FBI can't get story straight on encrypted phones

This is not what the FBI wanted.

When top agency officials speak, they understandably want their credibility underscored in comments delivered to the public.

Exactly the opposite is happening in what now seems to be a debate in Texas and nationally on FBI trustworthiness.

What has given the nation's top law enforcement agency a black eye of late is its months-long parroting of information relative to encrypted technology embedded in smartphones. It turns out that the accuracy of what FBI principals have consistently repeated to reporters, at conferences and before congressional bodies is, well, not accurate.

In fact, it could stray alarmingly far from the truth. A recent investigatory piece by The Washington Post uses the word "gross" to emphasize just how wrong the agency's assertions have been concerning the perceived criminal threat posed by unlockable phones.

Here's what the FBI has been consistently stating: the agency has been stifled in its investigations nearly 8,000 times by encryption software that locks it from opening phones it reasonably believes are storing criminal evidence.

And here is what might actually be the truth: that estimate might be overinflated by a ridiculously high amount. It was not long ago that the FBI stated that about 880 phones were effectively shielded from its probes.

That material variance in numbers, say agency critics and privacy advocates, suggests that the FBI is playing hard and loose with facts in a matter that closely affects the public interest.

Agency heads are now acknowledging that their consistently voiced mantra over many months was far from truth, with the bureau admitting to "significant over-counting" in a recent statement. The FBI says an innocent error, not an intent to deceive, brought about the notable inaccuracy.

Time will tell whether the agency will now suffer a material setback in its campaign to render every phone in the United States accessible to criminal investigators having a valid search warrant.

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