The Federal Bureau of Investigation made a big deal out of Apple's unwillingness to help it crack a locked iPhone 5c handset that was used by a terrorist in the deadly San Bernardino shooting, but it turns out it rarely needs assistance. Nine of out ten times, the FBI is successful in its attempts to unlock a secured smartphone or laptop, the agency admitted to attendees at a public meeting on encryption.
Jim Baker, General Counsel for the FBI, provided some interesting numbers for the public to digest. According to Baker, the FBI's forensic labs analyzed 6,814 phones and laptops from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016. Out of those devices, 2,095 (a little less than a third at 31 percent) were locked. down with a passcode or a password.
Out of those devices, the FBI was successful in extracting the data it needed 1,210 times, leaving 880 phones and computers that it couldn't unlock. That's a success rate of 87 percent,
This is the first time the FBI has shared numbers in detail like this and it isn't likely to do the agency any favors. What it shows is that despite the government's effort to convince companies like Apple and Google to build in backdoors and to slow their encryption efforts, there are comparatively few instances where it becomes a problem.
Of course, the FBI sees things differently. A spokesperson for the agency called the failure rate "hardly an insignificant number," though it is not clear the FBI received help from device makers in extracting data from the phones and laptops it wasn't able to unlock.
In addition, not all those instances represent a phone or laptop with strong encryption. In some instances, the FBI failed to extract data because the hardware itself was physically damaged or the data was deleted, among other factors, as Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist specializing in national security and civil liberties, stated in a Twitter post.
Unfortunately we'll probably never know how big or little of an issue encryption is for the FBI. The agency isn't in the habit of being 100 percent transparent.