Encrypted Smartphones Challenge Investigators


Encrypted Smartphones Challenge Investigators

Law-enforcement officials are running up against a new hurdle in their investigations: the encrypted smartphone.

Officials say they have been unable to unlock the phones of two homicide victims in recent months, hindering their ability to learn whom those victims contacted in their final hours. Even more common, say prosecutors from New York, Boston and elsewhere, are locked phones owned by suspects, who refuse to turn over passcodes.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance says his office had 101 iPhones that it couldn’t access as of the end of August, the latest data available.

The disclosures are the latest twist in a continuing dispute between law-enforcement officials and Apple Inc. and Google Inc., after the two tech companies released software last year that encrypted more data on new smartphones. The clash highlights the challenge of balancing the privacy of phone users with law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes.

“Law enforcement is already feeling the effects of these changes,” Hillar Moore, the district attorney in Baton Rouge, La., wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Mr. Moore is investigating a homicide where the victim’s phone is locked. He is one of 16 prosecutors to send letters to the committee calling for back doors into encrypted devices for law enforcement.

The comments are significant because, until now, the debate over encrypted smartphones has been carried by federal officials. But local police and prosecutors handle the overwhelming share of crimes in the U.S., and district attorneys say encryption gives bad guys an edge.

Encrypted phones belonging to victims further complicate the issue, because some families want investigators to have access to the phones.

“Even if people are not terribly sympathetic to law-enforcement arguments, this situation might cause them to think differently,” said Paul Ohm, a Georgetown University Law Center professor and former prosecutor.

Last week, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey told a Senate hearing that the administration doesn’t want Congress to force companies to rewrite their encryption code. “The administration is not seeking legislation at this time,” White House National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh said in a written statement Monday.

Some independent experts say the handful of cases that have emerged so far isn’t enough to prove that phone encryption has altered the balance between law enforcement and privacy. In many cases, they say, investigators can obtain the encrypted information elsewhere, from telephone companies, or because the data was backed up on corporate computers.


In the past this would have been easy for us. We would have an avenue for this information, we’d get a subpoena, obtain a record, further our investigation.

—Evanston Police Commander Joseph Dugan

“It depends on what the success rate is of getting around this technology,” said Orin Kerr, a George Washington Law professor.

Apple encrypted phones by default beginning with iOS 8, the version of its mobile-operating system released last fall. The decision came amid public pressure following former national-security contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of tech-company cooperation with government surveillance.

With iOS 8, and the newly released iOS 9, Apple says it cannot unlock a device with a passcode. That means Apple cannot provide information to the government on users’ text messages, photos, contacts and phone calls that don’t go over a telephone network. Data that isn’t backed up elsewhere is accessible only on the password-protected phone.

“We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and by following the appropriate legal process, we provide the relevant information we have available to help,” Apple wrote in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is an advocate of encryption. “Let me be crystal clear: Weakening encryption, or taking it away, harms good people that are using it for the right reasons,” he said at a conference earlier this year.

Only some phones, such as the Nexus 6 and the Nexus 9, running Google’s Android Lollipop system are encrypted by default. Google declined to comment about the role of encryption in police investigations.

Three of the 16 district attorneys who wrote to the Senate—from Boston, Baton Rouge and Brooklyn—told the Journal they were aware of cases where encrypted phones had hindered investigations. Investigators in Manhattan and Cook County in Illinois also have cases dealing with encrypted phones. Investigators say, however, they have no way of knowing whether or not the locked phones contain valuable evidence.

Mr. Moore, of Baton Rouge, thinks there might be important information on a victim’s phone. But he can’t access it.

Brittany Mills of Baton Rouge used her iPhone 5s for everything from sending iMessages to writing a diary, and she didn’t own a computer, her mother said. Ms. Mills, a 28-year-old patient caregiver, was shot to death at her door in April when she was eight months pregnant.

Police submitted a device and account information subpoena to Apple, which responded that it couldn’t access anything from the device because it was running iOS 8.2. Mr. Moore thinks the iCloud data Apple turned over won’t be helpful because the most recent backup was in February, two months before her death. The records he obtained of her phone calls yielded nothing.

“When something as horrible as this happens to a person, there should be no roadblock in the way for law enforcement to get in there and catch the person as quickly as possible,” said Barbara Mills, Brittany Mills’s mother.

Investigators in Evanston, Ill., are equally stumped by the death of Ray C. Owens, 27. Mr. Owens was found shot to death in June with two phones police say belonged to him, an encrypted iPhone 6 and a Samsung Galaxy S6 running Android. A police spokesman said the Samsung phone is at a forensics lab, where they are trying to determine if it is encrypted.

The records that police obtained from Apple and service providers had no useful information, he added. Now the investigation is at a standstill.

“In the past this would have been easy for us,” said Evanston Police Commander Joseph Dugan. “We would have an avenue for this information, we’d get a subpoena, obtain a record, further our investigation.”

Barbara Mills is committed to making sure more families don’t have to see cases go unsolved because of phone encryption. “Any time you have a situation of this magnitude, if you can’t depend on law enforcement, who can you depend on?”

Phone and laptop encryption guide: Protect your stuff and yourself


The worst thing about having a phone or laptop stolen isn’t necessarily the loss of the physical object itself, though there’s no question that that part sucks. It’s the amount of damage control you have to do afterward. Calling your phone company to get SIMs deactivated, changing all of your account passwords, and maybe even canceling credit cards are all good ideas, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Using strong PINs or passwords and various Find My Phone features is a good place to start if you’d like to limit the amount of cleanup you need to do, but in this day and age it’s a good idea to encrypt your device’s local storage if at all possible. Full-disk or full-device encryption (that is, encrypting everything on your drive, rather than a specific folder or user profile) isn’t yet a default feature across the board, but most of the major desktop and mobile OSes support it in some fashion. In case you’ve never considered it before, here’s what you need to know.

Why encrypt?

Even if you normally protect your user account with a decent password, that doesn’t truly protect your data if someone decides to swipe your device. For many computers, the drive can simply be removed and plugged into another system, or the computer can be booted from an external drive and the data can be copied to that drive. Android phones and tablets can be booted into recovery mode and many of the files on the user partition can be accessed with freely available debug tools. And even if you totally wipe your drive, disk recovery software may still be able to read old files.

Encrypting your local storage makes all of that much more difficult, if not impossible. Anyone trying to access your data will need a key to actually mount the drive or read anything off of it, and if you wipe the drive the leftover data that can be read by that file recovery software will still be encrypted even if the new data on the drive isn’t.

There are a few downsides. If you yourself lose the key or if your drive becomes corrupted, for example, it might be more difficult or impossible to recover data. It can slow down performance, especially for devices with processors that don’t provide hardware acceleration for encrypting and decrypting data. But, by and large, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and the slowdown for modern devices should be tolerable-to-unnoticeable.

iOS: Don’t worry about it

As of iOS 8, as long as you set a passcode, your personal data gets encrypted. Apple’s security whitepaper (PDF) for iOS 8.3 and later specifically says that “key system apps, such as Messages, Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Photos, and Health data values use Data Protection by default, and third-party apps installed on iOS 7 or later receive this protection automatically.”

The company also claims that every current iDevice features “a dedicated AES 256 crypto engine built into the DMA path between the flash storage and main system memory,” which ought to limit the impact of this encryption on system speed.

OS X: FileVault

Phone and laptop encryption guide: Protect your stuff and yourself

Starting with OS X 10.7 (Lion) in 2011, Apple began supporting full-disk encryption with FileVault 2. In more recent OS X versions, some Macs even offer to encrypt your storage as part of the first-boot setup process, though it’s not the default as it is in iOS.

To encrypt your drive after the fact, go to the Security & Privacy pane in System Preferences, and select the FileVault tab. Click Turn On FileVault and you’ll be offered a pair of options: store the key used to unlock your disk somewhere yourself, or choose to store it in your iCloud account. A local recovery key keeps that key off of another company’s servers, but leaves you without recourse if you lose it and you’re locked out of your system. If you do store your key in iCloud (or even if you don’t, for that matter), we strongly recommend enabling two-factor authentication for your Apple ID.

Encrypting your disk doesn’t drastically change the way that OS X works—you just need to put your account password in to unlock the disk before the operating system boots instead of afterward. You’ll also need to specify which local users’ logins can decrypt the disk. Otherwise, just the account that enabled FileVault will be able to turn the machine on. If you ever need to decrypt your Mac, it’s pretty easy if you can log in to the computer or if you have the key available.

Generally speaking, performance for encrypted devices declines less for newer Macs with hardware acceleration—most Core i5s and i7s can do it, but Core 2 Duo Macs cannot.


Phone and laptop encryption guide: Protect your stuff and yourself

Despite past promises, new Android devices still aren’t being encrypted by default. Default encryption is an option for OEMs, but outside of Google’s Nexus devices few if any companies are choosing to enable the feature on their phones.

You can still encrypt any relatively modern version of Android pretty easily—these specific steps work for Nexus devices or anything running near-stock Android, but the process should be similar if your phone is using a skin.

Open the Settings app, go to Security, and then tap “encrypt phone” to get the process started. Your phone may ask you to plug it in or charge the battery to a specific level before it will give you the option to encrypt, mostly because interrupting this process at any point is likely to completely corrupt your data partition. You’ll need to protect your phone with some kind of PIN or pattern or password if you haven’t already, and as in OS X your phone will probably require it before the operating system will boot.

To confirm that your phone was encrypted, go to Settings and then Security and look for a small “Encrypted” badge under the “Encrypt phone” menu item. If your phone already says it’s encrypted, you may have one of the new post-Lollipop phones that came with encryption enabled out of the box.

Depending on your phone, encrypting your Android phone or tablet can significantly impact performance. This is the worst for older or slower devices, which can use slower flash memory and filesystems and lack hardware encryption acceleration. The experience is better on newer phones with 64-bit ARMv8 processors and higher-end, faster storage.

Additionally, if you need to decrypt the device later on, there’s no way to do it without wiping and resetting the phone. If your phone came encrypted out of the box, though, there’s no way to decrypt the device without making more extensive software modifications.

Finally, in Android Marshmallow, the Android phones that include external storage are able to encrypt and protect the data on those cards as well as on internal storage.