Gunman’s phone still locked
FBI says it’s ‘working very hard’ to gain access
SAN FRANCISCO – A simple phone passcode may be a roadblock to more fully understanding the shooter behind Sunday’s deadly church killing, potentially resurfacing a fight between law enforcement, tech companies and privacy advocates over whether the government should get a back-door key to unlocking widely used consumer devices.
The FBI is still working to unlock Devin Kelley’s smartphone, retrieved after he shot a congregation in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25, including a pregnant woman whose unborn baby also died, before he was killed.
In Kelley’s case, the FBI has Kelley’s cellphone, and a search warrant allowing them access has been executed. It has been flown to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., for analysis, but so far a forensics team has been been unable to unlock the phone.
The agency has declined to name the device’s brand because it doesn’t want potential criminals to know which phone would offer the best protection.
“We are working very hard to get into the phone,” Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio bureau, said during a news briefing on Tuesday. “It could be tomorrow, it could be a week, it could be a month.”
Most cellphones require users to input a four- to eight-digit passcode to unlock the phone to prevent unauthorized use, sometimes also linked to a fingerprint. Some phones can also be set to lock down permanently or even delete the data stored on them if too many attempts are made.
Necessary for crime fighting
Law enforcement officials argue that access to suspects’ cellphones is often a crucial component of investigations — but one that’s frequently blocked by security technology.
The FBI has been able to retrieve data from fewer than half the mobile phones it has tried to access over the last 11 months, director Christopher Wray said last month at a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has warned that inaccessible devices have thwarted some of the office’s most serious investigations, including murder and sex crimes.
Vance is expected to disclose a new count of locked devices later this month. Last year, the district attorney reported that 423 Apple iPhones and iPads had been seized since October 2014 and have been inaccessible to investigators because of default encryption.
“Approximately 10% of our warrantproof devices pertain to homicide or attempted murder cases, and 9% to sex crimes,” Vance said last year.
Same issues as San Bernardino
The issue came to a very public head last year when Apple and the Department of Justice spent 43 days locked in a legal battle over an order from a federal magistrate in California that the company must help the FBI try to get into an iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook.
At issue was a feature on the iPhone 5C Farook had been issued by his employer that would lock investigators out if they made 10 unsuccessful tries to determine the correct password.
The FBI demanded that Apple help it disable the locking program, which Apple refused to do on the grounds that creating software to do so would result in something that could potentially unlock any iPhone.
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a public blog post on Feb. 16, 2016. In the end, the FBI paid an estimated $1.3 million to an unnamed company to build a tool that allowed it to break into the phone and withdrew its case against Apple.
The agency has declined to name the device’s brand. It has been flown to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., for analysis.