Prosecutors: Apple phone battle could aid NC investigations

Police officers stand guard last week during a demonstration outside the Apple Store in New York City. Protesters assembled in more than 30 cities around the world to lash out at the FBI for obtaining a court order that requires Apple to make it easier to unlock an encrypted iPhone.
Police officers stand guard last week during a demonstration outside the Apple Store in New York City. Protesters assembled in more than 30 cities around the world to lash out at the FBI for obtaining a court order that requires Apple to make it easier to unlock an encrypted iPhone. AP

If the FBI wins its fight to force Apple to hack a cellphone, law enforcement agencies across North Carolina say they’ll seek similar help unlocking phones in their own criminal cases.

Prosecutors and police in Charlotte and other cities say encrypted cellphones have stymied investigations, including murder and child molestation cases. Such privacy settings are common in many newer phones purchased by typical consumers. Apple says it can’t even get inside its own encrypted devices.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s cybercrime unit examines about 800 phones a year. In up to about 20 percent of those cases, or roughly 160 phones, encryption prevents officers from accessing texts, photos and other information from the device, CMPD said.

“Those phones are a treasure trove,” Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said. “(Apple) is preventing me from taking a murderer off the streets.”

Criminals are seeing this as a great boon to their business.

Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, speaking about the new generation of encrypted cellphones

Privacy advocates warn that creating a so-called “back door” for the phone of the accused gunman in the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., could unleash a key for hackers and government snooping on everyday phone users.

“If you make a golden key for one phone that would probably be safe, but nobody believes that is going to happen,” said Matthew Green, a technology professor at John Hopkins University.

But Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said that about 50 times in the past year, law enforcement officials in the Fayetteville area encountered phones they could not break into.

“To think that we may not be able to access some of that information is very concerning,” he said.

Federal officials in the California case say they cannot access the encrypted phone of suspected terrorist Syed Farook, who was killed in a shootout, because they don’t know the passcode. A federal magistrate judge ordered Apple to write a program that would allow the U.S. Justice Department to break into the phone as part of its investigation into the 14 deaths.

FBI Director James Comey believes Apple is compelled to do so.

But he acknowledged the difficulties of weighing privacy against security. On Thursday, he called it “the hardest question I’ve seen in government.”

Tighter security

In 2013, technology companies began trying to woo customers with greater security features, prompted in part by revelations from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of mass government surveillance.

By September 2014, Apple and Google announced stronger security that prevents anyone but a phone’s owner from accessing data on phones and tablets. That meant, Apple said, it could no longer comply with court orders to unlock devices that contain the popular iOS 8 operating system.

If you make a golden key for one phone that would probably be safe, but nobody believes that is going to happen.

Matthew Green, a technology professor at John Hopkins University.

Civil liberties advocates cheered the move, saying that tech companies had been too willing in the past to participate in the government’s attempts to collect user data.

In the pending California case, Apple asked the federal judge on Thursday to reverse the order to compel the company to help the FBI hack into the suspect’s phone, arguing in filings that it would grant the government dangerous new authority and violate the Constitution.

Apple said the software the government wants does not presently exist and would require six to 10 engineers working for as long as a month to create it.

If Apple granted the government request, the company said, “criminals, terrorists and hackers will no doubt view the code as a major prize and can be expected to go to considerable lengths to steal it.”

Crimefighting tool

In interviews with the Observer, prosecutors and police across North Carolina cited cases that hinged on data retrieved from cellphones to underscore the value of texts, photos and other information they contain.

▪ In Mecklenburg County, officials said data gathered from the victim’s cellphone helped them convict two men in the 2012 slaying of 21-year-old Christopher Cordero.

▪ West, the Fayetteville-based district attorney, cited the 2013 prosecution of Mario McNeill, who is now on death row for the 2009 abduction and murder of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis.

Cellphone information “was absolutely critical to prosecuting the case,” West said. “His phone activity, as well as the content of his text messages, laid out a timeline in that case that the jury understood.”

▪ And Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said access to cellphone information was crucial to helping law enforcement officials rescue Frank Janssen, the kidnapped father of county prosecutor Colleen Janssen.

“It saved Mr. Janssen’s life,” Freeman said.

Moore County DA Maureen Krueger said information found on cellphones does more than help identify and prosecute the guilty.

She recalled how cellphone data led to the conviction of the man who killed Southern Pines resident Lance Bullock – and to the exoneration of a chief suspect who had nothing to do with the crime. Information found on phones showed that the wrongly targeted suspect had been nowhere near the victim at the time of his 2012 murder, she said.

Bullock’s body was found in a rock quarry two weeks after his disappearance. But cellphone data showed that Bullock was in the home of another suspect, Ricky Joe Harvel, at the time he died. Harvel, who was later convicted of murdering Bullock, probably would have gotten away with it if not for the cellphone data, Krueger said.

“It probably would have been the perfect crime,” she said. “If they had not been able to get into the victim’s phone, I don’t think they would have been able to solve it.”

Prosecutors concerned

Criminals increasingly have turned to encrypted phones, says Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.

She said prosecutors have told her about recorded calls from jail inmates, who coach others to get the kind of phone that will be safe from investigators’ surveillance.

“It tells us that criminals are seeing this as a great boon to their business,” Dorer said.

A number of prosecutors in North Carolina said they would push to get access to encrypted phones if the FBI prevails in its case against Apple.

Murray, the Mecklenburg prosecutor, is among them.

“(Technology companies) have single-handedly, without the public being involved and without Congress involved, taken away an effective crime-fighting tool,” Murray said.

Drawing a line

The public appears split over the issue.

A poll taken last week for the Reuters news organization found about 46 percent agreed with Apple’s stance, while 35 percent disagreed and another 20 percent did not know. But an earlier poll from the Pew Research Center found more than half of respondents agreed with the government’s position over Apple’s.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have suggested that technology companies should be required to retain access or a “back door” to encrypted data.

Rebecca Watkins, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the senator is working on legislation to address the issue with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and hopes it will be drafted by next month.

In an op-ed column for USA Today, Burr wrote that the latest Apple operating systems are being used by “murderers, pedophiles, drug dealers and the others ... to cover their tracks.”

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has said he opposes weakening encryption. In an op-ed for the website Back Channel, Wyden said if the FBI forces Apple to produce a backdoor, authoritarian governments like Russia and China will take similar steps against the company. Some worry those governments would use information to retaliate against dissidents or commit other human rights violations.

Howard Neumann, the chief assistant district attorney in Guilford County, acknowledged that software written to get into encrypted phones could get into the wrong hands, making phone owners vulnerable.

But sometimes, he said, “public safety may have more weight than someone’s right to privacy.

“The court is going to have to decide where that line is drawn.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027

FBI vs. Apple: What’s the big deal?

A federal judge ordered Apple Inc. to help the FBI hack into an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. Specifically, the government wants Apple to bypass a self-destruct feature that erases the phone’s data after too many unsuccessful attempts to guess the passcode. Apple has helped the government before in this and previous cases, but this time Apple CEO Tim Cook said no and Apple is appealing the order.

Why all the fuss?

The clash brings to a head a long-simmering debate between technology companies whose business relies on protecting digital privacy and law enforcement agencies who say they need the ability to recover evidence or eavesdrop on the communications of terrorists or criminals to do their job.

It’s just one iPhone. and this could help catch terrorists. So, what’s the big deal?

While the judge on the case says the government is only asking for help unlocking one, single iPhone, Apple says the case is much bigger than that and sets a dangerous precedent. Cook says the company doesn’t have a system to bypass the self-destruct one. And if it creates one, the technology it creates could eventually be used to work against other iPhones. Then everyone’s iPhone would potentially be less secure.

Is my iPhone still secure?

Yes. The technology being debated doesn’t even exist yet. So what does this mean for your iPhone? In the short term, nothing. The case is likely to drag on for months — even years, if it works its way through appeals to the Supreme Court. But ultimately, the case could set the standard for just who has access to private data — the private message, photos and other data you store on your phone — and could cause millions of smartphones users to rethink what they store on their phones.

Associated Press