When manufacturers refuse to comply with requests to hack into phones, private agencies can sometimes help
We live in a complex world where every step towards improving quality of life and strengthening ethical conduct is frustrated by an equally determined move in favour of the opposite. This explains how a remarkable invention such as the cell telephone, meant to promote friendly human interaction at the workplace and elsewhere, serves also as a facilitator if not an abettor of crime and deceit. A technological breakthrough is thus both a blessing and a curse.
It is widely known that both common criminals and economic offenders across the world misuse the cell phone for perpetrating crime and hiding proceeds therefrom. Citizens with criminal propensity are becoming savvier by the day with computerised appliances, thereby supporting the prognosis that a bulk of conventional crimes will in future become digital. This makes the life of investigating agencies more complicated.
The tragedy is that manufacturers of smart phones are indifferent to this phenomenon. By denying access to law enforcement agencies looking for clues inside a phone through incredible and mounting security features, they have unwittingly played into the hands of the underworld, and are nearly abettors to crime. And this in the name of strengthening customer privacy, the USP of many new telephones.
We have the latest example in India of a high profile and influential white collar criminal whom the police are investigating for misdeeds, frustrating every attempt by the CBI to get at the bottom of a deliberate fudging of facts and records. He has cocked a snook at the official agency which demands that he reveal his phone passcode so that the instrument can be opened. The daring offender hides under the constitutional protection against self-incrimination in refusing to reveal the passcode. The agency’s seizure of the phone is therefore of no avail. This is a near travesty of justice. The offender has possibly a lot to conceal from the agency and has received shelter under the sanctity that privacy has acquired in the past few years.
When approached by crime investigators, phone manufacturers across the globe take the high and mighty stand that they cannot aid the former. They argue that this violates the pledge of confidentiality made to the customer at the time of selling the phone. Manufacturers say a passcode is personal to the customer, and they have no clue what it is.
The rival stands of phone makers and government agencies came to the fore and became public knowledge in 2015-16 in the US, when Apple denied the FBI request while investigating the San Bernardino terror attack in which 14 people were killed and several injured. The two accused died later in a police shoot-out. Attacker Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone was recovered by the FBI, following which they approached Apple. FBI went to court to get a direction to Apple to assist the investigation. Despite a categorical judicial direction, Apple was found to be prevaricating. At a point of time, the FBI got so frustrated , they withdrew the request they had made to the court and Apple, saying they had found an alternative method to open the phone in question. It was later known that the FBI used a private firm at considerable cost to break into the instrument.
Another quoted success is the unlocking of a phone used by an arms smuggler in November 2017 at the instance of the department of homeland security (DHS). Since then the subject has assumed great importance with the growing use of phones by offenders to hide their vital data. The CBI in India faces the same obstacle in quite a few sensitive current investigations.
In this context comes the latest claim by an Israeli firm, Cellebrite, that it has acquired the technology to hack into any iPhone on special demand by government. This includes devices running on iOS11 as well. This is despite the fact that, taking into account various developments in the recent past, Apple has considerably enhanced the security features of various new products such as iPhone X. In the Farook case also, Cellebrite was probably successfully engaged by the FBI.
Interestingly, a few private organisations went to court for a direction to FBI to reveal this. Their plea was turned down by the court which ruled that the FBI was under no obligation to disclose this to any outsider.
There is no way as yet we can satisfy ourselves that the Cellebrite claim is genuine. Nor is the claim of another firm, Grayshift of the US, that it has acquired expertise in unlocking devices that operate on iOS11. We are only certain that no lawbreaker can from now on rest confident that his phone is inviolable and therefore safe from successful raids by investigating agencies. To this extent, in the absorbing and continual battle between law enforcement and the underworld, the former is forging ahead in terms of technology.
The writer is a former CBI director. The views are personal
Published on March 20, 2018
via Smartphones and criminal investigation – Business Line