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Battle Between Police and Tech Firms Intensifies Over Smartphone Access

Battle Between Police and Tech Firms Intensifies Over Smartphone Access

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL – THOMAS MACMILLIAN/PHOTO CREDIT: WIKI

Amid an intensifying “arms race” between law enforcement and smartphone manufacturers, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is calling for legislation that would grant police a backdoor into mobile devices.

In a report issued last week, Mr. Vance said new laws are needed to force tech companies such as Apple and Google to modify their software so law enforcement can unlock smartphones seized during criminal investigations.

“Traditional investigative techniques—searches of targets’ homes, physical surveillance, wiretaps on telephones—often fall short when it comes to gathering enough evidence to solve and prosecute today’s criminal activity,” the report states. “Unfortunately, much of today’s evidence exists in a space that, prior to 2014, was largely unheard-of: Warrant-proof smartphones that have been designed to keep law enforcement out.”

Civil liberties and internet-advocacy groups have condemned efforts to weaken smartphone encryption, arguing that they threaten personal privacy, as well as U.S. national security and global competitiveness.

The only recent federal legislative effort to give police a way into smartphones—a bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) in the wake of the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead—foundered in 2016 amid widespread criticism from the tech community.

While Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, criticized Apple after the San Bernardino shooting, his Republican White House has yet to take any new steps to try to weaken smartphone encryption.

Meanwhile, the number of mobile devices seized in criminal investigations continues to grow. Mr. Vance’s report states that in Manhattan the district attorney’s office recovered 1,200 devices in the first 10 months of 2017, of which 700 were locked.

Law enforcement successfully unlocked about 40% of those 700 phones, a spokesman for Mr. Vance’s office said.

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