New York District Attorney calls for federal law to unlock seized iPhones

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New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance wants the Trump administration to help create federal legislation requiring Apple and Google to remove default encryption from their smartphones.

The recommendation comes from the DA office’s second report on Smartphone Encryption and Public Safety, presented by Vance at the opening of the Manhattan DA’s new cyberlab. New York County is currently sitting on 423 iPhones it can’t break into, even with a warrant, so the DA’s office is pushing for change.

Apple’s built-in encryption currently prevents anyone from accessing a phone’s data without the owner’s password. Vance called the situation an untenable arms race between private industry and law enforcement.

“Federal legislation is our only chance to lay these arms aside,” Vance said today.

NYCDA smartphone secutiry
The New York County DA says it’s unable to unlock some 40 percent of the smartphones gathered during criminal investigations.
Photo: New York County DA

His call echoes similar requests by the feds for a return to the way things were before October 2014, when Apple’s iOS 8 update shipped with default encryption in response to growing public concerns over government cybersnooping.

Feds maintain that an unlockable version of iOS never represented a privacy concern to citizens.

“Complying with judges’ warrants for smartphones never involved a government backdoor,” Vance said in his remarks. “It never meant that the government held a key to anybody’s phone. It never enabled access to real-time communications, and it never meant collecting bulk data on anyone.“

The New York County DA’s office says it’s been locked out of 34 percent of all Apple devices collected since October 2014, with a jump to about 42 percent over the past three months.

According to Vance’s office, 10 percent of the iPhones now sitting in the DA’s new 17,000-square-foot cyberlab are related to cases involving murder or attempted murder, with 9 percent related to sex crimes.

This issue became a national news story after the San Bernardino shooting, when federal investigators insisted they were unable to break into the shooters’ iPhone 5c without Apple’s help. Ultimately, the FBI was able to do just that.

It’s likely that under President-elect Donald Trump, such calls for de-encrypted consumer electronics will gain traction. In February, Trump called for a boycott on Apple products in the midst of the company’s refusal to build a special, unlockable version of iOS for the FBI.

The Manhattan DA’s new cyberlab will serve as a hub for investigators and analysts working on crimes that increasingly carry a digital component. As part of the symposium, Vance also announced the release of a free tool developed in partnership with the Global Cyber Alliance to combat phishing attacks.

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