Tech by VICE

Cops Are Now Paying to Hack into Crime Victims' iPhones Too

Without Apple’s help, LA cops found a way into the phone of actor Michael Jace’s murdered wife.

by Janus Rose
May 5 2016, 6:16pm

Image: Kārlis Dambrāns

The high-profile case in San Bernardino saw the FBI demanding that Apple create a backdoor to access a dead terrorist's encrypted iPhone, eventually breaking into the phone with the help of a mysterious "outside party." But before the case's anti-climatic conclusion, cops in Los Angeles successfully cracked another iPhone without Apple's help—only this one belonged to a murder victim, not a criminal.

According to a search warrant filed in March, reports the LA Times, the LAPD paid an unnamed "forensic cellphone expert" to break into an iPhone 5S belonging to April Jace, the deceased wife of "The Shield" actor Michael Jace, who was accused of her murder in May of 2014.

An LA judge had previously demanded that Apple give them the Genius Bar treatment after the local district attorney's office had difficulty getting past the phone's security features. While the court documents don't say what operating system version the phone had, based on the time it was seized, the device was likely running iOS 7, which unlike the San Bernardino phone's iOS 9 can be easily cracked with forensic tools like the IP-BOX. The order was issued after the defense requested to have the phone looked at more thoroughly.

The case is notable because it's the first reported instance where cops have demanded Apple create a backdoor into a victim's iPhone, rather than a criminal's, only to later discover an alternate means of cracking it.

In the San Bernardino case, the government originally argued that forcing Apple to backdoor its product (and thus creating a dangerous legal precedent) was the only way to obtain "crucial evidence" it claimed was on the phone used by Syed Farook, one of the deceased shooters who killed 14 people in a workplace rampage last December. Another case in New York involved the government seeking access to a meth dealer's iPhone 5S running iOS 8; that battle ended last month when the convicted perp voluntarily gave up his phone's passcode.

Investigators eventually got into the San Bernardino phone by paying a third party more than $1 million for a mysterious forensics technique. The FBI later admitted it found nothing particularly useful inside Farook's phone—much to the frustration of forensics experts, who had previously said that the device (a work phone issued by Farook's employer) likely contained nothing of value. The Bureau has also refused to disclose the exploit to the US government's mandatory Vulnerabilities Equities Process, saying that it doesn't actually know how it works.

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