ICE Tops Its Old Record, Spends Another $820,000 On Cellphone-Cracking Tools

from the putting-Grayshift-execs'-kids-through-college dept

As consecutive heads of the FBI have whined about the general public's increasing ability to keep their devices and personal data secure with encryption, a number of companies have offered tools that make this a moot point. Grayshift -- the manufacturer of phone-cracking tool GrayKey -- has been selling hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of devices to other federal agencies not so insistent the only solution is backdoored encryption.

ICE is one of these agencies. It led all federal agencies in phone-cracking expenditures in 2018. It spent $384,000 on these tools last year. It wasn't just ICE. Other agencies like the DEA and [checks notes] the Food and Drug Administration have also purchased these devices. But ICE led the pack, most likely because ICE -- along with DHS counterpart CBP -- are engaging in more suspicionless, warrantless device searches than ever.

When you don't have a warrant or consent, a third-party tool that can undermine device encryption is the next best thing. ICE must have a lot of phones to search -- or plans on amping up its search count -- because it's more than doubled its spending on GrayKey devices alone. Thomas Brewster of Forbes has more details.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) splurged $820,000 on tech made by Grayshift. The Atlanta-based company makes the GrayKey, previously described as the world's best iPhone hacking tech for police and intelligence agents, allowing them to break passcodes and retrieve information from inside Apple devices.

The contract, signed just last week, takes the immigration department's spend with the company to over $1.2 million, following a $384,000 Grayshift deal last year. That's the most spent on the superpowered iPhone hacking service by any government department, local or federal, looking across public records. The deal also marks Grayshift's biggest publicly known contract to date, according to a federal procurement database and state-level records. Its previous biggest, of $484,000, was with the U.S. Secret Service.

Maybe ICE just didn't want the Secret Service to top the list of encryption-breaking expenditures for this fiscal year. Or, more likely, it's seizing devices at a record pace and can't keep up with the rising tide of locked phones it's created.

The problem with this isn't that the government has access to devices like this. It's that ICE (and CBP) are operating in a super-gray area, legally-speaking. While courts have tended to allow warrantless searches under the border exception, the agencies themselves have only made this worse by refusing to enact meaningful guidelines that would curb abuses and careless handling of peoples' devices and data. They've created a "wild west" atmosphere every place someone could cross a border, which includes a number of inland international airports.

Tools that make it easier for the government to access peoples' papers and communications without a warrant isn't good news for anyone. It's a safe bet that if the judicial and political climate doesn't change, 2020 will bring another record ICE expenditure next year.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: cellphone cracking, encryption, ice, phone cracking
Companies: grayshift

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 May 2019 @ 4:47pm

    Illegal searches are still illegal...

    ...but will the courts recognize that illegality?

    I sure hope that when they show up in court with whatever 'evidence' they find, they are asked for the warrants that were issued for their searches, regardless of where those searches took place, or where the technology was confiscated. Any warrantless searches, and all the 'fruit of the poisonous tree' evidence should be tossed, not to mention those conducting those warrantless searches charged for violating the rights of the owners of that technology.

    Constitution free zones my ass.

Add Your Comment

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

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.