Police Are Grabbing Technology To Unlock People’s Cellphones

Eric Lieberman | Associate Editor

Law enforcement agencies — both local police departments and federal bureaus — across the country have been purchasing technology that can unlock encrypted cellphones, according to a Motherboard investigation published Thursday.

GrayKey, an advanced tool that can reportedly unlock Apple iPhones, for example, has been procured by a number of crime-fighting entities.

More local police forces like the Maryland and Indiana State Police, have obtained it. So has the State Department. And emails first discovered by Motherboard show the Secret Service is planning on buying several GrayKey boxes, which are supposed to prevail over iPhones’ default encryption system. At least two other regional law enforcement agencies have shown interest or have been in some kind of correspondence with the company GrayKey.

These findings seem to fly in the face of constantly purported concerns from the larger law enforcement community, and specifically the FBI, that it can’t access information within a suspected criminal’s cellphone.

Then-FBI Director James Comey pressured Apple CEO Tim Cook in early 2016 to help his crew unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators in the San Bernardino mass shooting.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said it would not be able to unlock the phone because it would require inventing the “software equivalent of cancer,” which would potentially compromise the private information of all iPhone users. In other words, he argues that a backdoor (often dubiously defined) would be a backdoor for all — both crime stoppers and crime doers.

“We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand,” Cook said in a letter written to Apple customers at the time.

“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door,” Cook continued. “And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

It turns out, after reportedly petitioning the help of an Israeli tech firm at first, the FBI ended up cracking Farook’s mobile device by employing other professional hackers who notified the bureau of a discovered software flaw, according to The Washington Post.

The FBI announced months later that it couldn’t unlock the phone of the 26-year-old who shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

“It actually highlights an issue that you’ve all heard before with the advance of the technology and the phone and the encryptions, law enforcement whether it’s at the state, local, or the federal level is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” Christopher Combs, an FBI special agent who heads the San Antonio division, said at a press conference in November.

And it wasn’t just American law enforcement who needed help. Turkish and Russian authorities tried to unlock the iPhone 4S of the killer who assassinated Russia’s ambassador to Turkey during a live event. Just like the FBI, they also asked for Apple’s help.

The British government tried to use a terror attack to pry its way into citizens’ cell phone.

Amber Rudd, Britain’s home secretary, said in an interview March, 2017, that the intelligence agencies in the country should have access to messages on WhatsApp even if they are encrypted (locked) because evildoers use the technology to conceal their communications, particularly the logistics and planning of terrorist operations. Rudd claimed that we needed “end-to-end encryption” but also a system where law enforcement can acquire encrypted communications with a warrant. (RELATED: Fed Raid Home, Demand Fingerprints To Unlock Phones)

“That’s incompatible with end-to-end encryption,” the news anchor rebutted.

Americans are almost perfectly divided over whether the police should be able to force people to unlock their phones, or access digital communications no matter what when investigating crimes. It seems they are moving forward regardless of any potential privacy or legal concerns in order to better collect evidence hopefully pursuant to a criminal case.

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