DA Cyrus Vance Throws Encrypted Phones On Table And Hands In Air As Criminals Take Over New York City
from the admits-law-enforcement-will-never-solve-crimes-again dept
Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance can’t stop griping about phone encryption. He’s basically a one-issue politician at this point. His creaky platform is the coming criminal apocalypse, currently being ushered in by smartphone manufacturers. The only person complaining more about phone encryption is FBI Director James Comey, but in Comey’s defense, his jurisdiction is the whole of the United States. Vance has only his district, but it encompasses the NYPD — a police force that often seems to view itself as the pinnacle of American policing.
So, with the battle between the FBI and Apple underway in a California court, Vance is back at it, attempting to grab the national spotlight from his position on the opposite coast.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said at a news conference that investigators cannot access 175 Apple devices sitting in his cybercrime lab because of encryption embedded in the company’s latest operating systems.
“They’re warrant proof,” he said, adding that the inability to peer inside the devices was especially problematic because so much evidence once stored in file cabinets, on paper, and in vaults, is now only on criminals’ smartphones.
Tough luck, that. But considering the information inside is encrypted, it’s a bit bold to declare that whatever’s contained there that the NYPD hasn’t seen would be useful to investigators. The assumption seems to be that if it’s encrypted and on a device seized by law enforcement, then it must be composed of smoking guns and signed confessions in PDF format.
Even if we buy the assumption that the phones contain massive amounts of useful data, there are other pathways to this data. It doesn’t have to run through the smartphone provider. And the efforts made to lock out cops (as it’s always presented) also keeps criminals from accessing the personal data and communications of others. So, there’s that.
Vance claims investigations are being hindered by encryption. Supposedly, the NYPD is sitting on 175 uncracked devices — some of which were displayed during the press conference. But other than this number being cited, very little was offered in the way of further detail. Instead, Vance photo-opped a pile of supposedly inaccessible devices and let the press draw its own conclusions. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was on hand to back up Vance’s assertions with the sort of jailhouse hearsay Detective Vincent Hanna would find patently ridiculous.
Bratton said criminals are increasingly aware of the protection offered by their devices. He said a prisoner in a city jail was recently recorded saying in a phone call that iPhone encryption was “another gift from God.”.
It’s a shame the Vance-Bratton loop doesn’t seem to be interested in hearing from other law enforcement representatives about whether the government should be forcing companies out of the encryption business or a locked-up phone should be treated as an investigative brick wall.
Here’s PoliceOne’s editor-in-chief, Doug Wyllie, pointing out what’s wrong with the FBI’s efforts — and every assertion made by other law enforcement officials who believe private companies should be forced to destroy the protective efforts they’ve built into their devices.
The Associated Press said in its report, “The dispute places Apple, one of the world’s most respected companies, on the side of protecting the digital privacy of an accused Islamic terrorist.”
Well, no. Apple is protecting its product for the hundreds of millions who possess Apple iOS devices, and it is protecting its own corporate interests. The company’s market position could be jeopardized by taking away one of the elements to its product that is most appealing to consumers (privacy and encryption) and thereby put the shareholders in financial jeopardy. As CEO, it is Cook’s responsibility to resist that.
Furthermore, the FBI may be using terrorism as leverage to secure Apple’s assistance, but its insistence that key info is held on a dead suspect’s phone suggests it’s reading too much into things it can’t actually see, as well as short-circuiting its own investigative processes.
The fact is that the probability that a terrorist would keep sensitive information about his plot/plans on his government-issued mobile phone is pretty preposterous. In the unlikely event that there is information relevant to the investigation on that device, the possibility exists that it resides elsewhere as well, such as with mobile carrier network records, or another person’s phone who spoke or exchanged messages with Farook. Consequently, the FBI should:
Vigorously pursue all of the other avenues of investigation.
Work to develop better decryption capabilities for future investigations.
Withdraw its petition to the court to force a private company to damage its products.
This is coming from the editor of a site that’s so much of a law enforcement echo chamber that you’re not even allowed to see comments unless you can prove you’re a law enforcement officer or official.
When another closed, pro-law enforcement loop can see both the forest and the trees, it clearly exposes Vance’s efforts here as little more than grandstanding. What Vance and Bratton want — along with James Comey — is for every impediment to investigations to be removed, either by courts or by legislators. Because they’ve chosen to focus on encryption, they’re ignoring scalable fences while wringing their hands over the padlock on the gate.
And, once more it must be pointed out that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies solved plenty of crimes before smartphones — much less smartphone encryption — became the norm. They claim everything that used to reside in file cabinets and bedroom drawers now resides in encrypted devices. While many people’s “lives” are contained in their phones, their lives encompass far more than their Companion Rectangles™. They still have computers and laptops that aren’t encrypted, third party social media services/email providers, as well as friends, relatives and co-conspirators who may be able to offer more insight or access. But all people like Vance see is iNcriminating Device 5S standing between them and justice, even when multiple paths around it still exist.