Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Cahhal doesn't mince words when deputies bring him an iPhone 6 and ask for help gathering information from the device. The veteran officer with the sheriff's fraud and cyber-crimes bureau simply hands it right back.
"Here's your nice paperweight," Cahhal tells them. "We can't do anything."
A long-simmering dispute between law enforcement and Silicon Valley over encrypted phones gained national prominence last week when a federal judge ordered Apple Inc. to help the FBI break into an iPhone 5c as part of the investigation into the San Bernardino terror attacks.
But police in California and other states have complained for many months that data encryption creates a major investigative hurdle in the hunt for killers, human traffickers, child pornographers and other offenders. Some fear criminals are intentionally using devices that run on newer operating systems because they know police can't access them, despite having search warrants signed by judges.
Investigators obtained a search warrant and gained access to the information stored on the cloud, said Hillar C. Moore III, the district attorney for East Baton Rouge. But Mills, who didn't have a computer, hadn't backed up her phone for three months. The information detectives had was old.
Mills' daughter and friends told investigators that she kept a diary on her phone and used the device to text, Moore said. Hoping the phone data could help them track Mills' killer, prosecutors obtained another search warrant, asking Apple to help them crack the encrypted device. But the company said there was nothing it could do.
"Since the device is running iOS version 8 or a later version, the iOS extraction cannot be completed," said Moore, reading Apple's response to the warrant.
Moore acknowledged the information stored on the encrypted phone may not lead to an arrest, but he said investigators should be able to check the device for possible clues.
"All of our avenues have dried up. It just doesn't seem fair. If this was Tim Cook's daughter and grandchild that was killed, I'd bet you he'd want to get into that phone," he said, referring to Apple's chief executive.
Cook wrote an open letter to customers last week arguing that complying with the court order to access Farook's phone would amount to creating a "back door to the iPhone" that could be used to open any number of devices and would hurt law-abiding people. "Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them," he wrote.
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Apple, said the company is "responsive and cooperative and helpful with law enforcement." The company, he said, provided information in about 80% of the roughly 10,000 requests from law enforcement it received in the past 12 months. The remaining 20%, he said, often involved information that didn't exist or requests that later were rescinded.
Apple is able to respond to requests for phone data backed up to iCloud servers, which the company can access without creating new software.
Previously, police could scour Apple devices for data by accessing a hardware port, experts say. But Apple changed its encryption practices in September 2014, creating security measures that it did not have the software to defeat. Customers also can enable an "auto-erase feature" on devices that will permanently destroy all access to encrypted data after 10 failed attempts to enter the correct pass code.
Last year, the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, brought law enforcement, privacy experts and others together to talk about the challenges posed by encryption and other advancing technologies. The result was a 57-page report by the association that stressed the importance of personal privacy, but warned that "going dark" also meant "law enforcement's ability to protect the public is diminishing."
"Think about child exploitation cases. If you've got somebody who's a predator, it used to be they operated in the shadows and always feared they were going to be detected," he said. "Now they operate with impunity. They look to their left, they look to their right and they say, 'It's all encrypted. I can iMessage all the other pedophiles that I want.' "
Just as information gleaned from encrypted phones could point police toward a suspect, officials said, the same information also could help prevent them from wrongly implicating an innocent person.
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