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Manhattan DA Pushes for Lawful Backdoor Into Encrypted Phones

by Devin Coldewey /  / Updated 

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The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance issued a report Wednesday (PDF) that urges lawmakers to require tech companies like Apple and Google to provide a back door into encrypted smartphones.

Android and iOS devices shipping today by default encrypt all content on the phone, making it inaccessible to anyone who doesn't know the PIN or password — including the police, the courts and the companies that made them.

Vance's office said it was unable to execute 111 criminal search warrants for smartphones between September 2014 and October 2015 because those devices had encrypted technology.

"Full disk encryption has been a significant hindrance to the investigation and prosecution of criminals because certain types of evidence exist only on smartphones," reads the report. "Smartphone encryption has caused real — not hypothetical — roadblocks to our ability to solve and prosecute crimes."

Related: Paris Attack Could Renew Debate Over Encrypted Messaging Apps

Vance is among several high-profile law-enforcement and national security officials, including CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey, who have renewed calls for tech companies to provide a workaround to encryption in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

The Manhattan DA's report recommends that any company making a smartphone operating system "ensure that data on its devices is accessible pursuant to a search warrant." It suggests a federal statute to that effect, on the grounds that "smartphones are part of interstate and foreign commerce," over which the federal government has constitutional authority.

Related: Tech Not Budging as Officials Push Anti-Encryption After Paris

But this may not even be technically feasible, pointed out Apple CEO Tim Cook at a Wall Street Journal event in October. "You can't have a back door in the software because you can have a back door that's only for the good guys," he explained. A built-in way to circumvent the encryption, in other words, could be used by anyone who got their hands on it — which privacy advocates have argued is an unacceptable security risk.

The ongoing debate over surveillance, and mistrust of government agencies occasioned by the NSA's secret collection of data on millions, complicates the idea of deliberately compromised encryption even further. For now, the tech world seems intent on fighting any such requirement tooth and nail.

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