Manhattan DA: Smartphone encryption foiled 120 criminal cases

Vance is indeed “beefing” with Apple, and the Manhattan DA, normally a placid sort, is on fire over how encryption is aiding criminals. “If the average criminal at Rikers knows it, the terrorist knows it, the sophisticated cyber-criminal knows it,” Vance told me. “It’s only a matter of time before there’s an incident where we say, ‘Who gave [Apple CEO] Tim Cook the right to decide whether a parent can find a lost child?’” Vance added later that it would be “no surprise” if encryption impaired the investigation of the Paris attacks, and he renewed his call for federal legislation to “restore the proper balance between public safety and privacy.” FBI director James Comey testified before Congress that popular encrypted communications apps are becoming standard “terrorist tradecraft.”

That’s still conjecture, but Comey and Vance are right that law enforcement is being handcuffed by “full-disk” encryption. Last month Vance issued a stinging 42-page “Report on Smartphone Encryption and Public Safety” (PDF) that outlines a series of heinous crimes solved by penetrating earlier model cellphones. Vance says that more than 120 Manhattan criminal cases have been harmed by the failure to execute search warrants on the latest smartphones, though because the cases are under investigation, he wouldn’t explain exactly how…

Much of the tech community, bolstered by the Edward Snowden revelations, believes there’s no such thing as a safe “back door” just for the good guys—that once you weaken encryption, you lessen not just security but privacy. But law enforcement isn’t talking about a “Clipper Chip” (a means of government surveillance embedded in phones) or even a standard backdoor key—just a key reserved for executing warrants. “This is not a key that the government has; this is not any sort of master key,” argues Steve Gibson, a software engineer (and originator of the term “spyware”) who hosts the podcast “Security Now” and parts with his tech industry colleagues in siding with law enforcement on this issue. “This would not be an algorithm where, if it got loose, suddenly all Apple iPhones and iOS devices would then be subject to break-in.”