Battle Between Police and Tech Firms Intensifies Over Smartphone Access

Battle Between Police and Tech Firms Intensifies Over Smartphone Access

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is calling for a law that would give police a backdoor into mobile devices

By Thomas MacMillan Nov. 27, 2017 6:59 p.m. ET

Amid an intensifying “arms race” between law enforcement and smartphone manufacturers, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is calling for legislation that would grant police a backdoor into mobile devices.

In a report issued last week, Mr. Vance said new laws are needed to force tech companies such as Apple and Google to modify their software so law enforcement can unlock smartphones seized during criminal investigations.

“Traditional investigative techniques—searches of targets’ homes, physical surveillance, wiretaps on telephones—often fall short when it comes to gathering enough evidence to solve and prosecute today’s criminal activity,” the report states. “Unfortunately, much of today’s evidence exists in a space that, prior to 2014, was largely unheard-of: Warrant-proof smartphones that have been designed to keep law enforcement out.”

Civil liberties and internet-advocacy groups have condemned efforts to weaken smartphone encryption, arguing that they threaten personal privacy, as well as U.S. national security and global competitiveness.

The only recent federal legislative effort to give police a way into smartphones—a bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) in the wake of the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead—foundered in 2016 amid widespread criticism from the tech community.

While Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, criticized Apple after the San Bernardino shooting, his Republican White House has yet to take any new steps to try to weaken smartphone encryption.

Meanwhile, the number of mobile devices seized in criminal investigations continues to grow. Mr. Vance's report states that in Manhattan the district attorney’s office recovered 1,200 devices in the first 10 months of 2017, of which 700 were locked.

Law enforcement successfully unlocked about 40% of those 700 phones, a spokesman for Mr. Vance’s office said.

“While workarounds such as ‘lawful hacking’ have been used by law enforcement with some success over the past year, they…become obsolete when new devices and operating systems are released, creating an endless cat-and-mouse system that strains resources and undermines public safety,” the report said.

Mr. Vance has lobbied for legislation in the past, including testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in 2015. Last week’s report is the third white paper released by his office since Apple’s 2014 decision to make locked devices inaccessible without a passcode, a move quickly matched by Google.

The result has been an escalating battle between law enforcement seeking to crack mobile devices and tech companies working to keep them secure, the report states.

Investigators increasingly rely on workarounds from third-party “lawful hacking” contractors, which the Manhattan prosecutors office said have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Such spending is available only to particularly well-funded agencies, the report states. “Crime victims thus have unequal access to justice, depending on the resources of the city or county in which they live,” the report said.

Mr. Vance's report cites several cases in which smartphone access was a key part of successful prosecutions, uncovering videos corroborating child abuse; photos and text messages linking murder suspects and victims; and messages establishing intent in a sexual-assault case.

Google and Apple declined to comment. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook previously has denounced efforts to create a backdoor, calling it government overreach that threatens consumer privacy and security.

“There’s no such thing as a backdoor that is just for law enforcement,” said Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Creating a way into cellphones means less well-intentioned people would be able to steal data and violate privacy, she said.

The NYCLU is lobbying for a state law, the New York State Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would make it more difficult for police to access mobile devices. The bill has passed the committee level and supporters hope to see it enacted in the next legislative session.

Appeared in the November 28, 2017, print edition as 'Battle Heats Up Over Smartphone Access.'


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