By Rebecca Davis O’Brien
July 7, 2015
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is set to appear before Congress on Wednesday to advocate for legislation requiring that smartphones be accessible to law-enforcement searches, a response to new encryption practices that some officials say hamper investigations and threaten public safety.
Mr. Vance’s planned testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee marks the latest salvo in a fight over government access to cellphone data. The clash pits prosecutors and investigators against technology companies, security experts and privacy advocates who argue that cellphone encryption is a vital protection for citizens.
Although data security is often framed as a national-security issue on the federal level, Mr. Vance planned to say in his testimony that the stakes were perhaps higher for state and local law enforcement. Those agencies investigate the vast majority of crimes in the U.S., and cellphones can offer key evidence.
“We are the ones who bear the brunt of this, ” said David Szuchman, executive assistant district attorney in Manhattan. “We will be unable to solve cases.”
For years, prosecutors have been able to harvest the contents of a cellphone after obtaining a search warrant, sometimes relying on tech companies themselves to extract the data. In 2014, the Manhattan district attorney’s office processed roughly 1, 000 cellphones in connection with criminal investigations. The office works on 100, 000 cases each year, 20, 000 of which are felonies.
But last fall, partly in response to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the scale of the collection of U.S. citizens’ digital records, Apple Inc. and Google Inc.introduced encryption that limits access to a phone’s contents, even if a judge has authorized a search. Apple and Google operating systems run on 96% of the world’s smartphones.
A spokesman for Apple referred to previous statements by CEO Tim Cook asserting the importance of security and privacy in Apple’s products.
Representatives for Google didn’t respond to a request for comment. Google and other technology firms previously have pushed back against law-enforcement warnings and defended new encryption policies.
Civil-liberties groups and cybersecurity experts say creating a “back door” for law-enforcement searches would undermine data security.
Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties advocacy group, said the government had no blanket right to private communications.
“Will it make investigations harder? Yes, ” he said. “They will no longer have a one-stop shop. Instead, they are going to have to do some real investigating.”
Mr. Vance is to be joined on Capitol Hill by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comeyand Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates, both of whom have expressed fears about “going dark”—communications designed to be completely inaccessible to law enforcement because of encryption.
But local law enforcement is also concerned with the cellphones themselves, including incidental videos that capture crimes in progress, and messages and photographs stored by perpetrators or victims.
“We respect the right to privacy, we are not in favor of willy-nilly searching everybody’s devices, ” Mr. Polenberg said. “We think it’s shortsighted at best for these companies not to give law enforcement access to these devices.”