Despite Obama administration claims that encryption is increasingly obstructing law enforcement investigations, the authoritative annual Wiretap Report from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts released on Thursday found that encryption was less of a problem in 2015 than it was the year before.
The report’s figures include all court-ordered wiretaps, but not those conducted without a warrant for “foreign intelligence” purposes by the National Security Agency and others.
Despite a 21 percent increase in wiretaps authorized by state courts overall between 2014 and 2015, the number of cases where law enforcement encountered encryption decreased from 22 to seven.
And out of 1,403 wiretaps authorized by federal judges, only six encountered encrypted communication. Two of those were decrypted by law enforcement, leaving only four that could not be deciphered.
In 2014, federal wiretaps encountered four encrypted communications, three of which could not be deciphered. (The 2014 figures include one 2014 wiretap that was not reported to the courts until 2015.)
That means that in 2015, out of 4,148 total wiretaps, only 11 encountered a form of encryption law enforcement could not break. That’s about one quarter of 1 percent.
Obama administration officials have been seeking ways to subvert end-to-end encryption, most notably CIA Director John Brennan, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and FBI Director James Comey. Comey has argued that encryption has “eroded [the FBI’s] ability to obtain electronic information and evidence pursuant to a court order.” Comey has also lobbied Silicon Valley companies to put backdoors into encryption and pushed Congress to adopt an encryption ban.
Administration officials also wrongly blamed encryption for terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, before evidence even emerged about terrorists’ online behaviors.
The 2015 Wiretap Report also notes that judges denied none of the 4,148 wiretap orders sought by police — revealing an overwhelming deference to law enforcement on the part of courts.