FBI Director Says Extremists Flocking to Encrypted Apps Poses New Challenges

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill March 2.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill March 2. Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

Christopher Wray told lawmakers tech companies are the ones making policies about encryption.

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned lawmakers Tuesday that extremists like those who stormed the Capitol Jan. 6 are increasingly turning to encrypted chat and social media platforms that pose new challenges to law enforcement organizations.

Wray, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the FBI’s monitoring and response to the attacks, said violent extremists—in this case, domestic terrorists—are “taking advantage of encrypted platforms to evade law enforcement.”

“I sometimes say terrorism today moves at the speed of social media,” Wray said. “Social media companies and technology companies are moving more and more in a direction where if we don’t collectively come up with a solution … it won’t matter how horrific the crime, we won’t be able to get access to content and evidence we need to protect the American people.”

Since the Capitol attacks, Wray said the FBI alone has arrested more than 270 people and collected some 270,000 pieces of digital media as evidence. Wray was pressed by several senators, including Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, on what legal powers and tools the FBI was using to collect data on the insurrectionists post-attack. In one exchange, Hawley asked whether the FBI “scooped up” cell tower and metadata associated with individuals on Capitol grounds and what the FBI might have done with it.

“Whatever we’re doing with cell phone data, I’m confident we’re doing it with” appropriate legal tools, Wray said, adding, “All the tools we have are used in conjunction with the lawyers and prosecutors” at the Justice Department.

Wray also confirmed the FBI had issued legal requests for information from social platform companies but declined to offer specific examples to lawmakers, citing the bureau’s numerous ongoing investigations.

The debate over encryption goes back years and transcends presidential administrations. New social platforms like Parler and Telegram and encrypted chat applications like Signal have given the masses more ways to communicate and exchange information, upping the ante for law enforcement. Wray told senators the FBI wasn’t asking “for a key or backdoor” into tech platforms’ content, but rather for Congress to weigh in on “balancing” users’ privacy with concerns over encryption.

“Americans need to understand that decisions normally made by elected representatives are now being made by tech companies,” Wray said.