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.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “DA Cyrus Vance Throws Encrypted Phones On Table And Hands In Air As Criminals Take Over New York City”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

The criminal apocalypse is already here… its just we are confused as to who the real criminals are…

The ones trafficking dope on the street or the ones removing liberty, killing citizens, or incarcerating them for lengthy periods of time over inane & misconstrued laws.

Society is thoroughly broken which is why government has become broken.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Crunching the hypothetical numbers

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.

Let’s run some extremely generous hypothetical numbers shall we?

Assume for the moment that every single one of those devices contains not only the ‘smoking gun’ evidence for one crime, but five each.

175 devices x 5 crimes each = 875 unsolved crimes caused by encryption.

Assume further that the evidence on the phones are the only pieces of evidence with regards to the cases, such that without the ability to unlock those devices the crimes will not be solved, and those responsible will not be found guilty.

Assume that because they were never found guilty, each criminal will go on to commit at least ten more crimes each over the course of the next five years.

175 criminals x 10 crimes = 1,750 additional crimes that could have been prevented were it not for the original encryption.

Add the two numbers together and encryption has allowed 2,625 crimes to occur over the course of five years, the majority of which could have been prevented.

Huge right?

Now, keeping in mind that people check their email on their respective devices, they check their bank accounts, pay bills, do any number of things involving highly sensitive, and more to the point highly valuable data, such that anyone who gains access to it, whether physically or otherwise gains access to a treasure trove of data…

Without reliable encryption and security to protect that data, does anyone think the number of crimes involving electronic devices would be less than 2,625 over the course of five years?

mac insand (profile) says:

how does this relate to information on previous media

IANAL, and I am becoming an old buzzard, so I see this from a different perspective. Let’s say select an encryption method for writing records on paper a few decades ago, my understanding is that fifth amendment would protect me from being compelled to disclose the means for decryption, whether I came up with my own encryption or used a published algorithm. The government’s argument now seems to be that, if they know the encryption provider, then that provider has to provide a key to unlock. I disagree with that premise. If we pick an encryption method to protect our information from the bad guys, then we need to know that the encryption is as secure as possible…without backdoors that are in the hands of organizations that are vulnerable to teenage crackers or known to keep critical secrets on unsecured servers.

Ideally, we need an encryption marketplace that is independent of the hardware makers and with multiple choices. Even moreso, encryption modules should be capable of being piped in series, much like guitar pedals on a rack, or maybe like the arrangement of Enigma wheels. On one hand, that would make divulging the particular encryption selection even more of a Fifth Amendment issue. However, my main concern is keeping information that criminals might find useful out of the hands of criminals, especially when it comes to terrorists. And, that’s why I believe that a security apparatus that actually cares about security would be driving our society to mandate secure encryption.

ThatDevilTech (profile) says:


These phones are the ONLY pieces of “evidence” this idiot and the NYPD possess for the potential crimes? No witness statements? No surveillance camera footage? These phones are the only chain of evidence? I doubt that. He’s just pissed he can’t go on a fishing expedition without a warrant.

Is the Manhattan DA an elected official? If so, he needs to be kicked to the curb the next round of elections. IF the people of Manhattan are smart enough to do so.

Mr Sassinak says:

Re: So....

These arguments drive me up a wall. I mean do they really expect the phone to say “Bomb placed at X location by Person Y, SSN #928-22-8820, DOB: DD-MM-YYYY, see you at 6” I mean all the previous crimes were solved not by a computer (through it made it easier because of larger data sampling sets) but by detective skills, learning how people think, act, etc… And even when using a wiretap, the people talk in codes/shorthand, etc.. no one is spelling anything out in the clear. So this is purely a power grab by the police/Feds because they can’t “monitor” everyone to “insure the continued security of the nation”.

ECA (profile) says:


1..get A WARRANT..FOR THE PHONE AND ITS DATA, and say WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR. NOT a random search of peoples data.

2..with all this, Why cant you find corporate Money and HOW they are hiding it..and get taxes owed?

You really think that a SMART phone/tablet/device is a secure way to hold data..EVEN many Dumb phones can hold Data chips..

City and FBI are all ready monitoring our data..going to and from the Telco, most data is NOT HARD encrypted.. Unless they are running REAL encryption on both ends..the data is there, in the Air..

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I guess DA Vance is to overwrought about these locked phones to pursue cases against those with power who abuse citizens.

“He said a prisoner in a city jail was recently recorded saying in a phone call that iPhone encryption was “another gift from God.”.”
Sure hope that wasn’t a call between the prisoner and his lawyer.

Perhaps they need to get a new DA, one who is capable of independent thought. The current one seems way to hung up on getting into the phones to be effective in his job. Ignoring all other possibilities so one can have a press conference pushing a pet peeve raises questions about the abilities of the office.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course we already know what the cops do when they have unrestricted access to the personal data of someone they have arrested.


I suspect the real driving force behind this is to protect the cops from citizens who collect video evidence of their crimes. Imagine all the evidence the police are going to be able to more easily destroy if they had unrestricted access to every phone.


Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Old School

Let’s say they get their backdoor. Those that really want to hide things will just go to an older method of encryption. Say a book cypher. Two numbers, example 16 243 represent word number and page number of a certain edition of a certain book. Only printed versions will work, as the digital ones aren’t a fixed media (number of words on a page and number of pages can change, just change the font size). So a code like: 123 315 23 847 1 459 could represent three words and there is no limit on the length of the message. There are probably ways to include Lat/Long and Times and Dates without looking out of the ordinary given a protocol.

Without knowing the proper book, the proper edition, hell even the proper language, THERE IS NO WAY TO BREAK THIS CODE. If the caught perpetrator dies, they will never find out which book. Since those tree based books don’t have meta-data, law enforcement is even further out of touch. It seems that this move will just force those who wish private to do a little more work and it will leave law enforcement even more in the dark.

These codes could be sent from anonymous emailers to a long long list of recipients of which only one knows what to do with it as part of a spam message. Most people, and if lucky web based email providers would move it to the spam folder automatically. But that one person who knows what to expect and what to do with it…

It is difficult to fathom the stupidity of our ‘intelligence’ agencies.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

Banning encryption could work if you were somehow able to compel every single programmer in the world not to build encryption products. Same with undermining it: but all it takes is one programmer who’s not on board.

And even with a fucked up mindset like “we’re just going to go after the low hanging fruit” then it still won’t work. Congrats, you just took away all the privacy from John Q. Public on his iPhone, but Ahmed Q. Terrorist will still find strong crypto to use across all his devices.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: WTF is on these phones?!?!?!

Nothing they need to know. They want the backdoor.

There is no court case, the perpetrator is dead. They have all the meta-data so they know who, when, why, where and how of all contacts and the actions of the culprit. What is left to know? What was actually said in some emails? To what end?

They want the backdoor, and this is their test case to see if they can get it.

SpaceLifeForm says:

Fishing expedition

Apple can and should refuse to accept delivery and possesion of any device that any LEO demands ‘assistance’ with in the course of their ‘investigation’. Same applies to Microsoft, Google, well, any manufacturer of any computing device.

Because if the computing device is delivered and a change of possesion occurs, that becomes implicit or explicit acceptance of the court order.

It will also allow another attack: they can claim spoilation of evidence. Which is also almost certain to happen even *before* the case makes it to SCOTUS. Which is a certainty.

Steve Marz says:

FBI director according to his own interview lets ISIS fighters back into America but complains about terrorism

It’s funny FBI director James Comey complaining about IPhone encryption a and says the FBI needs encryption codes in order to fight terrorism, but in a 60 minute interview, the FBI Director admitted they let ISIS fighters back into America http://cnsnews.com/news/article/susan-jones/fbi-director-americans-fighting-isis-entitled-come-back these ISIS fighters are killing people and the FBI director James Comey lets them come back to America and all he assures the American public with is that he will keep an eye on the ISIS fighting who has been murdering Christian and Jews and moderate Muslims. Remember I did not say the FBI Director let Muslims in this country, I said ISIS fighters which is exactly what my link above points too. Yet the FBI says we should violate are privacy when there letting ISIS terrorist into America. GIVE ME A BREAK.

Anonymous Coward says:

so they have complete cooperation from the service providers to tap conversations. they can get warrants for location data. they can deploy stingray devices, they can shoot a laser mic at a window. they can track with drones. they can put gps trackers on cars. they can go count their billion dollar budgets and cash seizures, but the one thing holding them back is that they can read you phone calendar.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...