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Apple Began Pushing Back Against FBI Last Fall

Police and prosecutors in New York City said Thursday that the encryption technology on Apple mobile phones is now routinely hindering criminal investigations, and they predict the problem could grow worse as more criminals figure out how well the devices keep secrets.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said at a news conference that investigators cannot access 175 Apple devices sitting in his cybercrime lab because of encryption embedded in the company's latest operating systems. "They're warrant proof," he said, adding that the inability to peer inside the devices was especially problematic because so much evidence once stored in file cabinets, on paper, and in vaults, is now only on criminals' smartphones.

Up until recently, Apple routinely helped law enforcement officials unlock phones deemed important to an investigation. (According to the New York Times, the company provided data in response to more than 3,000 requests in the first half of 2015.) But it stopped helping when it involved devices loaded with its encrypted operating system, iOS 8, and last fall stopped altogether even with phones using earlier, non-encrypted OS. Apple's line in the sand? A drug case in Brooklyn involving a suspect who forgot his password on an iPhone running iOS 7. "Forcing Apple to extract data in this case, absent clear legal authority to do so, could threaten the trust between Apple and its customers and substantially tarnish the Apple brand," argued Apple's lawyer in a Brooklyn federal court.

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Apple has marketed its new encryption data as an important privacy tool, and many privacy advocates have praised the company, saying that if it opened its devices to government surveillance that ability to spy on users could be abused in places with authoritarian regimes.

The Times agrees with that position. In an editorial published on Thursday, the paper noted that some Government officials have proposed creating legislation that would require phone and computer makers to maintain a so-called “back door” to encrypted data on devices. “Congress would do great harm by requiring such back doors,” the Times editorial board writes. “Criminals and domestic and foreign intelligence agencies could exploit such features to conduct mass surveillance and steal national and trade secrets. There’s a very good chance that such a law, intended to ease the job of law enforcement, would make private citizens, businesses and the government itself far less secure.”

The Cupertino, Ca.-based company is currently fighting a federal magistrate's order to help the FBI hack into an iPhone used by a gunman in December's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. A deadline to reply to the order was originally set for next Tuesday but has been extended to Friday, Feb. 26, according to Bloomberg.

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Vance, the D.A., didn't specify which cases were being hindered. But NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton said a phone seized in the investigation of the shooting of two police officers in the Bronx last month is among those detectives can't crack. Bratton said criminals are increasingly aware of the protection offered by their devices. He said a prisoner in a city jail was recently recorded saying in a phone call that iPhone encryption was "another gift from God." An Apple spokesman did not immediately return a call Thursday for comment on the concerns of New York City authorities.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has warned that creating software allowing the FBI to unlock the San Bernardino suspect's phone could make millions of other phones vulnerable to hackers and criminals. Cook said that if Apple were forced by the courts to "hack our own users," the government could order the company to build surveillance software to intercept all sorts of messages, "access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone's microphone or camera without your knowledge."

According to the Times, complying with the FBI’s order would create a dangerous precedent. “Writing new code would have an effect beyond unlocking one phone. If Apple is required to help the F.B.I. in this case, courts could require it to use this software in future investigations or order it to create new software to fit new needs. It is also theoretically possible that hackers could steal the software from the company’s servers.”