Law enforcement found to have easier access to phones than previously thought


Pang Kakit | Wikimedia Commons

Israel Catalan

Although Apple claims to value their customer’s security and uses end-to-end encryption, they have complied on numerous occasions aiding law enforcement to unlock phones. Apple’s iCloud, which serves as a way for users to store information, is another way for law enforcement to collect user data.

Law enforcement has purchased tools for cracking into suspect’s phones, spending up to millions of dollars to find incriminating evidence for cases. If the suspect decides not to comply in certain cases, officials can still crack open phones with a warrant.

Cellebrite, an Israeli company, has been in contract with the FBI to help them unlock suspects’ phones. In 2016, Cellebrite successfully helped unlock an iPhone 5C belonging to one of the terrorists responsible for the attack on San Bernardino, California. For iPhones that have come out after the iPhone 5S model, bypassing the encrypted operating system is tricky. The ability to access criminals’ phones seems useful for building a case against them in court, but can be used against civilians as well. Aside from the FBI, state law enforcement can access a phone within 11 hours or up to 12.5 years depending on the phone’s passcode length.

Interestingly enough, mobile phones now use facial recognition or biometrics like fingerprints to unlock which make it easier for law enforcement to obtain access. While officials can simply hold up the phone to a user’s face during court and unlock it that way, it is also considered illegal. Each state and its police force have different laws around this issue. There have not been federally instituted laws that can prevent officers from accessing someone’s phone. In 2019, a defendant was told to unlock his phone for Massachusetts highest court but in Pennsylvania’s highest court the defendant did not have to unlock their computer. The most troubling aspect about these court decisions is that the ordinary state resident would not know if they could defend their belongings and security unless they were familiar with these rulings.

A Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., argued the use of encryption in smartphones slows down investigations. Others argue that the use of encryption helps the average smartphone user protect their private information from malicious hackers. Nowadays, almost everything is stored on mobile phones, like location history, contacts and pictures. It is unlikely that a user would give up that information willingly.

The reality is that law enforcement, if they desired to, could access any phone with the right tools. The best option to safeguard your phone would be to have a long password with at least 6 characters that vary.