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The Police Can Access Your Phone’s Data Without Unlocking It

Eric Loseke, Science and Technology Editor

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According to CNN Money, on November 9, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein used the Texas mass shooting as a prime example as to why ways that can go around security and privacy settings on phones and similar devices are necessary. Apple reached out to the FBI after learning that they could not unlock the Texas shooter Devin Kelly’s iPhone. Law enforcement did not ask Apple for help within 48 hours of the shooting, which lost them essential time that could have helped them go through the phone.

The 48-hour window

In theory, the FBI could have used Devin Kelly’s fingerprint to unlock the phone with a clay model of the fingerprint, even if he died, because Apple’s Touch ID setting can easily be fooled with a clay replica of the fingerprint. Apple’s assistance would not be needed for this method because if the FBI called, Apple would most likely redirect them to that technique. However, Touch ID only works if the last time the iPhone had been unlocked was within 48 hours of the current time, and after that, the fingerprint sensor is disabled, and a password must be inputted to unlock the phone. Apple made the 48-hour time limit so people would remember the password to their phone because they must do this to update its software.

Other methods

Some experts speculated that the Texas shooting incident would continue the debate about going around privacy and security measures in phones and similar devices. California Senator Dianne Feinstein wants to revisit a proposal that requires tech companies to share encrypted messages if given a warrant. The 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack created the encryption issue when Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, publicly pushed back on the FBI’s order to create software that could unlock one of the shooter’s iPhones. In a letter, Cook wrote, “In the wrong hands, this software – which does not exist today – would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” (Source: CNN Money)

The FBI found an alternative solution to the problem: they paid over one million dollars to hack into the iPhone. Any person with the money to do it is allowed to use hacking tools to break into computers and phones, but the devices can be costly.

Nicholas Weaver, lecturer in the computer science department at UC Barkley, believes that there were other ways to get the data that could be received if they unlocked the phone. According to Weaver, some workarounds to the phone unlocking were:

  • Law enforcement could convince Apple to show iCloud backups of data stored on the phone. 
  • Cell phone providers can reveal data that shows the criminal’s location and who a criminal is exchanging texts with. 
  • If someone backs up his or her phone’s data to a computer, it would be easier to get the data from the computer instead of the phone, because computers have weaker security compared to phones. 

Apple stated that they work with law enforcement, and its latest report said that the FBI’s requests ranged from asking for information about stolen credit cards to account purchase history. Also, according to the report, 4479 device-based requests and 1692 account requests from Apple were submitted. In a statement, Apple said:

We offer training to thousands of agents so they understand our devices and how they can quickly request information from Apple.”

In conclusion, the Texas mass shooting is a reason why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wants ways that can go around security and privacy settings on phones to be necessary. In theory, the FBI could have unlocked the phone with a clay model of Devin Kelly’s fingerprint to unlock his phone by tricking the Touch ID setting, but due to the 48-hour time limit, the method became unusable. To unlock the phone, the FBI had to buy a hacking tool that cost over one million dollars. Nicholas Weaver suggested some workarounds to the hacking tools that could have worked just as well. Apple said in a statement that as a company, it would help agencies understand their devices.

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The Police Can Access Your Phone’s Data Without Unlocking It