FBI iPhone solution may not necessarily crack other cases

March 29, 2016 by Sudhin Thanawala And Bree Fowler
In this Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, file photo, an Apple iPhone 6s Plus smartphone is displayed at the Apple store at The Grove in Los Angeles. The FBI said Monday, March 28, 2016, it successfully used a mysterious technique without Apple Inc.'s help to hack into the iPhone used by a gunman in a mass shooting in California, effectively ending a pitched court battle between the Obama administration and one of the world's leading technology companies. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

The FBI's discovery of a way to hack into the phone of one of the San Bernardino killers may not be the master key that allows prosecutors across the country to unlock iPhones in hundreds of more ordinary criminal cases.

The FBI may not quickly share the technique it used with local agencies, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said Tuesday. And even if it does, the hack may be too expensive for district attorneys' offices, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has said.

Also, technology experts said it is not at all certain whether the technique can work with other types of iPhones.

While the San Bernardino case involved an extremist attack Dec. 2 that killed 14 people, investigators across the U.S. are seeking access to iPhones in drug cases and other crimes, arguing that encryption features prevent them from gathering valuable information such as the identity of the person a victim last talked to or texted.

"This is really a victims' rights issue," said District Attorney Daniel Conley in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. "A lot of people view this through a national security lens and that is important, but my job is to serve victims of crime, and a lot of them aren't going to get the opportunity for justice they deserve."

Conley said his office has more than 50 phones it has warrants for but can't crack.

Manhattan officials said they have at least 200 Apple devices inaccessible to prosecutors out of a total of 734 seized between October 2014 and February 2016. The devices were taken during investigations of attempted murder, child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, child pornography, assault, robbery and identity theft.

"This isn't just an issue resonating in California or New York. The decision by these companies unilaterally to encrypt these devices and make them warrant-proof is going to have a significant impact on prosecutions around the country," Vance said in a recent interview.

Vance told Congress earlier this month that other district attorneys are facing similar challenges. He cited Harris County, Texas, saying the DA there last year encountered more than 100 encrypted Apple devices in cases involving human trafficking, street crime and sexual assault.

Vance said Chicago's Cook County cyber lab received 30 encrypted devices in a recent two-month span, and the Connecticut Division of Scientific Services has encountered 46 encrypted Apple devices.

The Justice Department declined through a spokeswoman to comment Tuesday.

But a law enforcement official said the FBI would continue to aid its local and state partners with gaining evidence in cases—implying that the method used in the San Bernardino case would be shared with them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly comment.

Vance and other law enforcement officials, though, have called for a federal law governing when a company can be forced to help authorities unlock a phone.

"A workable balance between privacy and public safety can only be set by Congress," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Bratton, too, said the FBI's success in breaking into gunman Syed Farook's iPhone without Apple's help does not do away with the need for a comprehensive solution.

"They may have dealt with this one," he said, "but there will be others coming down the pike very quickly."

Explore further: US hacks iPhone, ends legal battle but questions linger (Update)

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7 comments

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rp142
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2016
Apple could not be "forced to help authorities" if they made their devices secure. It would then be impossible for Apple to break the encryption or access the devices to help authorities.

A court order that demanded the impossible would not survive a challenge.
eachus
4 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2016
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

I think the intent of the Fourth Amendment is often misinterpreted. The amendment speaks of warrants being issued to seize persons or things. I see no right there for government to use warrants to seize information. Do you? Obviously the first part of the amendment envisions the use of searches to collect information as unreasonable. For example, seizing personal papers to search them for evidence of treason basically requires that information be presented to a judge who then issues a warrant to verify the evidence. But if a warrant to look for specific treasonous documents uncovers evidence of fraud? That cannot be used.
BendBob
not rated yet Mar 30, 2016
The NSA may toss a few bones to the FBI now and then.
calsicptp
1 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
IMHO it should be a federal crime to sell any hardware or even use apps that provide encryption of messages that the government cannot access in any crimes involving murders and terrorism. I don't know what you fools are all crying about; if I am an honest person I have absolutely nothing to hide. Put yourselves in the victims shoes before whining!
gkam
2 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
calsicptp, that is the argument of every authoritarian group wanting control over everyone else.
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
oops
eachus
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
II don't know what you fools are all crying about; if I am an honest person I have absolutely nothing to hide. Put yourselves in the victims shoes before whining!


Which victim's shoes? The problem is that I know enough about encryption to build secure software so you--for example--don't have to worry about computer viruses. But not only do we all suffer from that, I have to keep documentation and generators for things that look like encrypted files, but are test files for tests of randomness. Why? I don't want whatever persecution someone thinks is appropriate for recovering encryption keys when there is no key.

Note that one-time pads are a way for a pair of crooks--or anyone--to send unbreakable messages. And one-time pads look just like the test files I generate. PGP has been out there for decades, and everyone would use it for e-mail if it wasn't for the pressure of law enforcement agencies on ISPs. Easy secure encryption is a fact, not an opinion.

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