TRI In The News
City Police Purchase Equipment to Crack Locked iPhones
A device specifically designed to break into iPhones and Apple operating systems and allow access to encrypted files has been approved for purchase by the Charlottesville Police Department.
A notice posted on the city’s purchasing website Thursday showed the police department had agreed to buy the device from Grayshift LLC, citing the company as the only source for the “‘microcomputer hardware unit/software to extract pass code and data from iOS devices.”
“The software is a tool utilized in digital forensics, pursuant to valid legal authority,” said Sgt. Tony Newberry. “This type of tool can be used in the examination of various electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, tablets, etc., [that are] legally seized or obtained through consent.”
The device is called a GrayKey and was developed to unlock iPhones, including models running iOS 11.3 and the iPhone X, according to computer security analysts and the company’s advertisements.
Although the Grayshift website has no information available, reports by computer security analysts and posts on a variety of social media and industry forums indicated the company offers a $15,000 annual license to use its internet-based software up to 300 times to crack codes.
A device can also be purchased for $30,000 and used as many times as the agency wants without accessing the internet except for initial setup and software updates.
The purchase announcement did not specify which option the city took.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that in most cases police will need a search warrant to access information on a cell phone. In limited cases, if police have reason to believe information from the phone is needed to thwart a crime or that the information may be destroyed, they may search the phone prior to receiving a warrant.
“With the growth of technology such as this, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment that provides a right to privacy is on life support,” said John Whitehead, of the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization that seeks to protect constitutional freedoms.
Rutherford noted that a wide variety of information is gathered and stored on cell phones, much of which is presumed to be private.
“What gives us dignity is privacy. It gives us our own space,” he said.
The ability — and inability — to access locked devices such as cell phones and other computer equipment has been a point of contention between U.S. law enforcement organizations and technology companies.
Called “going dark” by the FBI, it has resulted in conflict both legal and rhetorical between Apple and the FBI and other federal organizations.