Court papers filed today indicate that prosecutors are trying to break into locked smartphones seized during arrests made on Inauguration Day. According to a report from BuzzFeed, there are more than 100 phones involved, some belonging to individuals who have not been indicted. These devices were seized by law enforcement on January 20th when 214 people were arrested on felony rioting charges related to demonstrations held in protest of President Donald Trump.
It’s unclear how prosecutors intend to break into the phones, and whether they have the means to do so given the fact that some of the devices may be running up-to-date versions of iOS, making them virtually impenetrable, even to Apple itself. Nonetheless, the court papers indicate that officials are attempting to break in.
“The government is in the process of extracting data from the Rioter Cell Phones pursuant to lawfully issued search warrants, and expects to be in a position to produce all of the data from the searched Rioter Cell Phones in the next several weeks. (All of the Rioter Cell Phones were locked, which requires more time-sensitive efforts to try to obtain the data),” the papers read.
“Time-sensitive efforts” is understandably vague, yet it seems farfetched that smartphone encryption could be broken in just a matter of weeks, especially following the FBI’s public spat with Apple last year over access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. It took the FBI months to find a working solution to bypass Apple’s built-in security measures. That was only after the organization reportedly paid more than $1 million for a very specific and narrow exploit to access an iPhone 5C. In the process, the FBI created a massive rift between the government and Silicon Valley over consumer privacy rights and the reach and power of federal agencies.
There is the remote but unlikely possibility that the phones involved with the Inauguration Day arrests are all running Android, making them easier to break into. The court papers could also be leaving out key contextual information, like whether the devices in question are locked using biometric authentication. It’s far easier to bypass something like Touch ID than a passcode. Law enforcement could use a warrant to compel someone to unlock the phone, or an advanced 3D-printed mold made using available fingerprint data from a government database.
Still, it’s notable that device security is finding its way to the heart of this particular situation. We’ll start to get a better idea of whether the devices have been broken into — and what methods might have been used — next month when follow-up hearings begin and evidence potentially gathered from the phones is presented in court.