A Police Charity Bought an iPhone Hacking Tool and Gave it to Cops

Private companies such as Target fund police foundations, which then purchase technology for police departments.
Image: Malwarebytes

The San Diego Police Foundation, an organization that receives donations from corporations, purchased iPhone unlocking technology for the city's police department, according to emails obtained by Motherboard.

The finding comes as activist groups place renewed focus on police foundations, which are privately run charities that raise funds from Wall Street banks and other companies, purchase items, and then give those to their respective police departments. Because of their private nature, they are often less subject to public transparency laws, except for when they officially interact with a department.


"The GrayKey was purchased by the Police Foundation and donated to the lab," an official from the San Diego Police Department's Crime Laboratory wrote in a 2018 email to a contracting officer, referring to the iPhone unlocking technology GrayKey.

Do you have any other documents related to the GrayKey? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

The GrayKey is a series of devices made by Atlanta, Georgia-based firm GrayShift. Since launching several years ago, the company has entered a cat-and-mouse game with Apple, with GrayShift continually upgrading its product to allow law enforcement agencies to unlock modern iPhones, and hence bypass the encryption locking down data on the devices, and Apple then implementing mitigations to try and make that process harder.  

GrayShift offers an online version of its tool, which requires an internet connection and can be used a limited number of times; an offline version that can be used as many times as wanted; and a mobile version which Motherboard recently revealed the existence of.

"The EULA I sent you [is] for a software upgrade that will allow us to get into the latest generation of Apple phones. Our original license was a 1 year license agreement paid for by the Police Foundation," the email adds.


In a 2019 email, two other officials discussed purchasing the GrayKey for the following year.

"This is the phone unlocking technique that the Police Foundation purchased for us (for 15k). Apparently the software 'upgrade' costs the same as the initial purchase each year. :/ They are the only ones that offer a tool that can crack iPhones, so they charge A LOT!," the email reads.

The items that foundations donate can include surveillance technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies that donate funds or items are the same companies that police departments end up buying equipment from. In 2007, an LAPD chief asked a foundation to approach Target, which then donated $200,000 in order to help cover the cost of buying software from surveillance firm Palantir, ProPublica reported.


An image of a GrayKey unit published by the FCC. Image: FCC

"Our end goal is to have an intervention on the funneling of private money into police forces and into policing," Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, told Politico recently. "If the police foundations existed to raise money for the families of fallen police officers, we wouldn't say we need to abolish police foundations. It's the specific type of work that they're doing that we object to."

Because police foundations act as private entities, they also do not directly fall under public records laws, meaning their expenditure or other activity may be more opaque than that of a police department itself.


In 2006, chip maker giant Qualcomm gave the San Diego Police Foundation a $1 million donation, for improving communications, GPS location, and broadband services for the department. GovX, a clothing supplier for current and former military and law enforcement officials, donated $12,950 in 2018. Residents can also donate their vehicles to the foundation.

Kristen Amacone, director of education and technology for the San Diego Police Foundation, previously told a local CBS affiliate that the city moves slowly with its budgets, meaning getting new equipment can take years.

Neither the San Diego Police Department or Sara Napoli, the Police Foundation president and CEO, responded to a request for comment.