Manhattan DA: Locked Phones Thwart Crime-Solving


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While law enforcement can use the location data from nearby cell phone towers to locate criminals, “warrant-proof” smartphone encryption on the devices continues to impede justice for crime victims, says Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. A new report his office released Thursday, summarizes the “cat and mouse” game involving lawful hacking workarounds. “Apple’s and Google’s encryption decisions have created a new market for private entities to develop and monetize encryption ‘workarounds,’” he states.

In the report, Vance accuses tech companies of consistently putting profits ahead of society’s best interests. He points to Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook user data and Google’s plans to launch a censored version of its search engine in China as evidence that “certain technology companies have made their decisions, not based on what might be prudent public policy, but — understandably — based on what is in their shareholders’ economic interest.”

From May 2018 through August 2018, the Manhattan D.A. Cyber Lab tried to access 589 mobile devices in connection with live criminal investigations. 366 (or 62 percent) were passcode-locked. Of those 366 devices, 165 remain inaccessible despite court-ordered warrants to search the devices, according to the report

During this period, 21 percent of the locked devices pertained to sex crimes. 36 percent pertained to cybercrime, identity theft, and fraud. In 17 cases, the D.A.’s Office has used smartphone evidence to exonerate or reduce charges against individuals accused of crimes, according to the report.

Vance Believes federal legislation is needed to “reconcile privacy interests with the need for judicially-sanctioned access in appropriate cases.” He called on Congress to enact a statute that requires, “any designer of an operating system for a smartphone or tablet manufactured, leased or sold in the U.S. to ensure that data on its devices is accessible pursuant to a search warrant.”

November 5, 2018