Archives October 22, 2020

Police complain about surveillance “going dark” but they are frequently breaking encryption far more than previously known

In a new Apple ad, a man on a city bus announces he has just shopped for divorce lawyers. Then a woman recites her credit card number through a megaphone in a park. “Some things shouldn’t be shared,” the ad says, “iPhone helps keep it that way.” Apple has built complex encryption into iPhones and made the devices’ security central to its marketing pitch. That, in turn, has angered law enforcement. Officials from the F.B.I. director to rural sheriffs have argued that encrypted phones stifle their work to catch and convict dangerous criminals. They have tried to force Apple and Google to unlock suspects’ phones, but the companies say they can’t. In response, the authorities have put their own marketing spin on the problem. Law enforcement, they say, is “going dark.” Yet new data reveals a twist to the encryption debate that undercuts both sides: Law enforcement officials across the nation regularly break into encrypted smartphones.

That is because at least 2,000 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states now have tools to get into locked, encrypted phones and extract their data, according to years of public records collected in a report by Upturn, a Washington nonprofit that investigates how the police use technology. At least 49 of the 50 largest U.S. police departments have the tools, according to the records, as do the police and sheriffs in small towns and counties across the country, including Buckeye, Ariz.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Walla Walla, Wash. And local law enforcement agencies that don’t have such tools can often send a locked phone to a state or federal crime lab that does. With more tools in their arsenal, the authorities have used them in an increasing range of cases, from homicides and rapes to drugs and shoplifting, according to the records, which were reviewed by The New York Times. Upturn researchers said the records suggested that U.S. authorities had searched hundreds of thousands of phones over the past five years. While the existence of such tools has been known for some time, the records show that the authorities break into phones far more than previously understood — and that smartphones, with their vast troves of personal data, are not as impenetrable as Apple and Google have advertised. While many in law enforcement have argued that smartphones are often a roadblock to investigations, the findings indicate that they are instead one of the most important tools for prosecutions.