Why the FBI's next battle with tech companies will be messier than ever

Earlier this year, the FBI ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the gunmen in the December 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., but Apple refused to comply. Although the agency successfully unlocked the phone without Apple's help, a recent Bloomberg article claims the FBI's future attempts to unlock encrypted data will prove to be harder than ever.

If Apple wants to access more encrypted data, "the court system is not going to be the proper place to resolve it," said Marc Zwillinger, an ex-federal cybercrime prosecutor, according to the report.

And federal laws like the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act don't provide the FBI with much help. The act says that if a telecommunications provider doesn't have the information to decrypt certain content, it can't be held liable for doing so, Bloomberg reports.

Still, companies sometimes must comply with law enforcement agencies' requests. An Apple report states that between July and December of 2015, such agencies asked the company for data on 5,192 accounts. Apple provided the information in 82 percent of these requests.

If the government is somehow able to get a company to decrypt content, consumers who use the technology have the ability to transfer their data to an encrypted messaging service outside the country. "The FBI certainly has no jurisdiction, nor ability, to extract information from providers that are outside the U.S.," said Peter Toren, who was previously a federal computer crimes prosecutor, according to the report.

Regardless, even if a government agency isn't able to decrypt content right away, the agency might still find the locked information valuable. The FBI could "decrypt it at a later time, or combine it by using other investigative technologies to pursue a case," according to Bloomberg.

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