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US Police Groups Claim Encryption Has Made iPhones the 'Device of Choice' for Criminals

A court filing by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and two others cited a jailhouse phone call in which an inmate called Apple's encryption a "gift from God."
Photo via Justin Lane/EPA

Three US law enforcement groups have claimed in a court filing that some criminals have switched to new iPhones as their "device of choice" due to the strong encryption Apple has placed on its products.

The groups told a judge overseeing Apple's battle with the US Department of Justice on Thursday that, among other things, they were aware of "numerous instances" in which criminals who previously used throwaway "burner" phones had switched to iPhones. They did not list any specific instances.


The brief by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and two others also cited a jailhouse phone call intercepted by New York authorities in 2015, in which an inmate called Apple's encrypted operating system a "gift from God."

The government obtained a court order last month requiring Apple to write new software to disable passcode protection and allow access to an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the December killings in San Bernardino, California.

Related: Judge James Orenstein Has Something to Say About the US Government's Decryption of iPhones

Apple asked that the order be vacated, arguing such a move would set a dangerous precedent and threaten customer security.

Tech industry leaders including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft and more than two dozen other companies filed legal briefs on Thursday supporting Apple. The Justice Department received support from law enforcement groups and six relatives of San Bernardino victims.

The law enforcement groups said in their brief that Apple's stance poses a grave threat to investigations across the country.

The FBI says Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were inspired by Islamist militants when they shot and killed 14 people on December 2 at a holiday party. The couple later died in a shootout with police and the FBI said it wants to read the data on Farook's work phone to investigate any links with militant groups.


In a filing on Thursday, the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office said at least two 911 calls from the time of the shooting reported three assailants, not two.

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Even though those reports were "not corroborated," if in fact there were three attackers it would be important to crack open the iPhone "to identify as of yet unknown co-conspirators," the District Attorney's filing stated.

Apple has said it respects the FBI and has cooperated by turning over data in its possession. The latest request is different, Apple says, because it requires them to crack a phone with a software tool that does not currently exist.

The FBI has admitted that it made a mistake by attempting to reset Farook's iCloud password in the days after the shooting, a move that potentially blocked an alternate way for authorities to access the data on the phone without Apple's help. FBI Director James Comey admitted the mistake during recent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, but maintained that the botched iCloud hack was irrelevant because it's possible that not all of the data would have been backed up even if it was successful.

Related: FBI Approved Hack That Complicated Access to San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone Data

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the FBI's court order, which he said "has implications far beyond the legal case at hand."

"Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the US government," Cook wrote. "We are challenging the FBI's demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country. We believe it would be in the best interest of everyone to step back and consider the implications."

While Comey initially claimed that the FBI only wants to unlock one iPhone, several reports have noted as many as a dozen other cases where the government has sought to unlock Apple devices. During his March 1 testimony on Capitol Hill, Comey conceded that the request for Apple to help unlock Farook's phone has broad implications.

"We are seeing more and more cases where we believe significant evidence resides on a phone, a tablet, or a laptop — evidence that may be the difference between an offender being convicted or acquitted," Comey said. "If we cannot access this evidence, it will have ongoing, significant impacts on our ability to identify, stop, and prosecute these offenders."

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