At least for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, the debate over encrypted iPhones isn’t going away anytime soon. In a new Fortune profile of the state-of-the-art crime lab, Vance relays that there are currently more than 400 uncracked iOS devices in the DA’s possession that deal in some way with an open investigation.
A combination of iPhones and iPads
The DA doesn’t believe user privacy should take precedence over any other factor:
In Vance’s view, the new encryption tools amount in part to a marketing schtick in which the tech giants are using privacy as a pretext to dodge civic responsibility. He believes Apple and Google are no different than other companies, including telecom and automotive firms, that initially resisted regulation but came to work with governments.
“Why should Google or Apple be treated any differently than any other large, multinational company who’ve had to recognize the products they are developing are in fact being used by criminals and that society gives up a lot when they are inaccessible to law enforcement,” Vance says.
According to Fortune, there are a wide variety of iOS device models being held by the DA. Of the 423 devices, there are 166 iPhone 6 models. There are only 15 iPhones without Touch ID capability.
The encryption debate came front and center earlier this year. The saga began in February when Apple was ordered by a California judge to assist the FBI to unlock an iPhone 5c used by terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook. He was one of the shooters that killed 14 people during an attack at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health in late 2015.
Apple refused and was backed by a number of other technology companies.
In the end, the FBI recruited a group of professional hackers to break into the phone. The case against Apple was dropped.
Vance believes it will be up to Congress to compel Apple and other companies to unlocked encrypted devices:
Vance thinks the solution is for Congress to oblige tech companies to make the devices in such a way the companies can still access the content on them and, when necessary, supply that content to law enforcement. At a minimum, he says this should apply to “data at rest” on a device as opposed to access in real time.
Such a law would simplify the evidence-gathering process—and reduce the load on his lab—but also raise major civil liberties questions. Critics of proposed “back door” laws—which call for companies to build a secret way into phones and computers—fear such rules would be abused by police, and force citizens to surrender every detail of their digital lives. Vance downplays such worries, and argues judges will keep a tight leash on such searches.
While legislative action looked difficult at best earlier this year, with a new Republican president and Congress taking office in January, that could definitely change.