New York DA Pushes for Apple to Make Devices Warrant-Friendly

More than 400 Apple devices are sitting in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Cyber Lab. All are locked and inaccessible to investigators, as a result of Apple’s implementation of default device encryption in October 2014.

As a result, Cyrus Vance, district attorney for New York County, renewed a call for Federal legislation requiring Apple to make iOS warrant-friendly.

Apple’s decision to make its devices inaccessible has long been met with controversy.

“Law enforcement and crime victims’ advocates came out immediately to warn the companies and Congress that placing smartphone data beyond the reach of search warrants–in a class all by itself–would pose an obvious and significant risk to public safety,” Vance explained at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s 7th Annual Financial Crimes & Cybersecurity Symposium.

As Apple explained on its website, “[u]nlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”

After Apple announced the change, Google quickly followed suit.

However, Vance, and others in the law enforcement arena argue that the choice to make smartphones warrant-proof is preventing criminals from being prosecuted and potentially harming public safety.

“Approximately 10 percent of our warrant-proof devices pertain to homicide or attempted murder cases, and 9 percent to sex crimes,” Vance said.

In a report published this month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office renews the call for Apple to change its security protocols.

In the report, Vance’s office argues that Apple’s previous method of data extraction was never compromised. Additionally, the report finds that requiring smartphone makers to retain the ability to extract data will not increase users’ risks of being hacked. It also argues that Federal legislation is the only path forward to require Apple and other smartphone makers to make their devices warrant-friendly.

“To fight crime effectively in the 21st century, we have to make smartphones answerable to search warrants–just as they were until 2014. Complying with judges’ warrants for smartphones never involved a government backdoor,” argued Vance. “It never meant that the government held a key to anybody’s phone. It never enabled access to real-time communications, and it never meant collecting bulk data on anyone.”

While Vance acknowledges that the debate regarding government access to smartphones will likely rage on, a new wrinkle in the debate is the election of Donald Trump. In 2015, Apple and the FBI came to blows when Apple defied a court order to help the FBI unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. President-elect Trump previously called for a boycott on Apple products when it refused to help the FBI.

Vance argues that default decryption doesn’t protect anyone, except criminals.

“That is the great irony at the heart of this debate. In their purported attempt to provide more cybersecurity, Apple and Google have empowered cyber criminals to act with impunity,” he said.

Kate DeNardi
About Kate DeNardi
Kate DeNardi is 21st Century State & Local's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs
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