It’s not just the Federal Bureau of Investigation that wants to unlock iPhones in criminal investigations.
Local law enforcement, too, has several cases that officials say warrant access to personal information stored on mobile devices.
It’s the latest example of the extent to which the government’s national security and law enforcement interests conflict with privacy concerns.
It stems from a court order in California requiring Apple to develop software to help unlock iPhones in the San Bernardino terrorist attack case from last year. But a judge in New York, in a separate case involving drug dealing, ruled in Apple’s favor. Apple has refused to comply.
Gainesville Police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said at least 20 phones have been confiscated over the last five years that investigators have not been able to access because of pass codes.
“These cases have involved homicides, drugs, assaults and death investigations,” he added. “This is not just a problem with iPhones but Androids as well.”
Lee Darragh, district attorney for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, said that while privacy concerns are valid, “the fact remains that information from cellphones has proven to a vital tool even locally for many years in finding criminals, tracking them until caught, and proving the cases against them where the other supporting evidence doesn’t fully wrap up the case.”
Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Nicole Bailes said about 1 in 6 phones in such cases cannot be unlocked.
“From a local standpoint we have never encountered a cellphone that has been selectively encrypted as the San Bernardino suspects have done with their phone,” Bailes said.
“The issues that we have come across is the ability to unlock these devices that are password-protected,” she added. “There are some phones that have dated software or specific model phones that cannot be defeated.”
Sheriff Gerald Couch said the information on a mobile phone can contain geographical data, messages and personal contacts relevant to investigations.
“With that in mind the privacy of these devices must be respected unless the owner gives consent for a search or a judge determines a search is warranted based on probable cause,” he added.
Gainesville criminal defense attorney Arturo Corso said that balancing privacy against legitimate law enforcement inquiries is difficult.
But the conflict between Apple and the government is more clear-cut, he added.
“They are asking a private company to give the government a secret key to open every iPhone on the planet,” Corso said. “This is the very definition of unreasonable searches. If leaked, and these things are always leaked, it would allow law enforcement agencies, governments and even criminals around the world to reach into your pocket and your children’s pockets and search for unlimited information.”