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FBI abruptly cancels Hill briefing on encryption

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The FBI has abruptly canceled two large Hill briefings on encryption slated for this week, offering no explanation to the staffers invited, according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Last week, the FBI invited congressional staff to two virtual briefings on “warrant-proof encryption,” slated for June 18 and June 20. Briefers would have discussed how encryption created challenges for the FBI’s work investigating “violent crimes against children and transnational organized crime,” according to the invitation.

The briefings were the second in a series for all Hill staff on FBI “priority topics,” according to a copy of the invitation POLITICO reviewed. The first briefing in the series, held last month, focused on fentanyl.

The FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs offered no details as it announced that the encryption event was indefinitely delayed.

“Regrettably, due to circumstances outside of the FBI’s control, the briefings on the FBI’s Efforts on Warrant-Proof Encryption which were originally scheduled for June 18th and June 20th, have been unexpectedly postponed,” the email reads, adding that the bureau plans to reschedule the event.

“The FBI sees tremendous value in informing Congress on various issues and especially recognizes the importance of this particular topic,” the email continued, “so we deeply apologize for any inconvenience to those who were planning to participate.”

One Republican Hill staffer, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, said the most likely explanation for the postponement is political pressure, given that the issue is “politically awkward” for President Joe Biden’s administration.

“Of course they canceled the briefing,” the aide said. “The last thing this administration wants is people talking about these issues in a heated election season that could revolve around exactly these issues.”

The topic of encryption is politically contentious, particularly among progressives. For years, the FBI has warned that enhanced privacy protections implemented by prominent messaging and social media platforms, like Signal, are blinding them to communications from terrorists, criminal organizations and child sex traffickers.

While the bureau has long urged tech companies to build so-called back doors so they can lawfully access encrypted communications if they get a search warrant, those calls have heated up in recent years amid the explosion in online child sexual abuse material.

But tech companies, security researchers and privacy advocates have resisted, arguing that there is no way to do so without introducing new vulnerabilities that can be exploited by state hackers or cybercriminals. They also counter that the rise of commercial data brokers and other connected devices that hoover up personal data — from cars to smart cameras — mean law enforcement agencies have more access to personal data than ever before.

A host of tech companies — Apple, most prominently — provide encrypted communication platforms.

An FBI spokesperson referred POLITICO to DOJ for comment. A DOJ person said political concerns were not behind the event’s cancellation. “That’s ridiculous and quite an inferential leap based on the scheduling of a congressional staff briefing given the Department and Bureau’s strong and consistent stance on this issue,” the spokesperson said.