Manhattan DA Still Wants to Kill iPhone Encryption

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance thinks Apple and Google are intentionally thwarting criminal investigations through the encryption features in the iPhone and Android-based smartphones. He's calling for Congress to pass laws mandating backdoors into our encrypted data so law enforcement agencies can more easily investigate crimes, and he says the arguments against the idea amount to nothing more than rhetoric.

Manhattan DA calls for Federal smartphone encryption backdoor mandateManhattan DA calls for Federal smartphone encryption backdoor mandate

Mr. Vance said that by choosing to encrypt our smartphone data, Apple and Google have been "engineering themselves out of criminal investigations," according to Fortune. The consequence, he said, is that criminals can act without fear of repercussion.

He said,

In my office alone, we now have 270 lawfully-seized iPhones running iOS 8 or 9 that are completely inaccessible. These devices represent hundreds of real crimes…that cannot be fully investigated, including cases of homicide, child sex abuse, human trafficking, assault, robbery, and yes—cybercrime and identity theft.

The implication is that without direct access to the encrypted contents of our smartphones, law enforcement agencies can't investigate and solve crimes.

According to Mr. Vance, Apple and Google have failed to show a real threat to mandated backdoors into our encrypted data, and that both have failed to present arguments "backed up by data and not rhetoric."

The debate over smartphone encryption went very public earlier this year when the FBI obtained a warrant ordering Apple to create a hackable version of iOS so agents could access the encrypted contents on an iPhone recovered from one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. Since the suspect, Syed Farook, was killed in a shootout with police, the passcode into the iPhone was lost and too many guesses would've automatically destroyed the contents of the device.

Apple fought the order saying it was an overreach of government authority and posed a serious security risk for all iOS devices. That battle included a House Judiciary Committee hearing where Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell, FBI Director James Comey, and Mr. Vance all testified. The FBI later dropped its case after finding a third party that could hack into the iPhone.

It's Just a Back Door

From Mr. Vance's perspective, backdoors into our encrypted data don't pose a real threat to privacy and security—or more likely, government mandated backdoors. Making the distinction between backdoors Congress forces companies to create and backdoors introduced through malware is pointless; from a technical standpoint they're the same, and a backdoor that's accessible to one group is ultimately available to all.

Bringing the metaphor into the real world: A door is still an access point into a home even if you don't have the key. Locks can be picked and doors can be broken down. Taking it back to the digital world, a government mandated backdoor would be known to all, making the threat of unauthorized hacking even greater.

If that still sounds too much like rhetoric, maybe Mr. Vance should download Verizon's latest Data Breach Investigations Report and read through it real quick. It's free, so it won't even cost New York's tax payers any money.

Law enforcement agencies were faced with encryption long before the smartphone, and has always had limited access to our personal data and conversations. The big change now is that smartphones are like a nexus for our personal lives and potentially offer an avenue where law enforcement can follow along with everything we do, and know far more about us than ever before.

That doesn't sound like government protecting us. It's more like myopically exposing our personal lives and bank accounts to anyone one or any government with the technical savvy to come looking.