Solving crimes with evidence extracted from smartphones is common.
The Washington Post offers a few examples, including a district attorney using video taken with a phone to prove some gang members were involved in the shooting of an innocent bystander in Manhattan.
However, it has become nearly impossible for law enforcement to access users’ data on some smartphones. In the past few years, certain smartphones with Google’s Android operating system allowed users to encrypt personal data. And the new iPhone 6 automatically encrypts a user’s data.
“For the first time, all the important data on your phone -- photos, messages, contacts, reminders, call history -- are encrypted by default. Nobody but you can access the iPhone’s contents, “ Wired reported. “The encryption on the iPhone is secure even from the maker of the device. Apple itself can’t access your files, which means, unlike in the past, the company can’t help law enforcement officials access your files, even if presented with a valid search warrant.”
The level of encryption on consumer devices can be so sophisticated that law enforcement officials “often lack the technical ability” to access data that they are legally authorized to, said FBI Director James B. Comey in a speech at the Brookings Institution. “Some believe that the FBI has these phenomenal capabilities to access any information at any time -- that we can get what we want, when we want it, by flipping some sort of switch. It may be true in the movies or on TV. It is simply not the case in real life.”
Comey said that the “law hasn’t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem.” He suggests a revision to the law that would “require companies to decode messages if they are presented with a court order,” according to the International Business Times.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks which highlighted surveillance overreach by the NSA, many are wary of Comey’s petitions to weaken any security on devices.
Conor Friedersdorf argued inn The Atlantic, that smartphone makers are not “setting an alarming new precedent” with their encryption capabilities.
“You’ve long been free to buy a safe that opens only with your thumbprint, bury a treasure chest in a location known only to you, or write a diary in code,” he wrote
The Daily Caller reports that Comey faces little support in Congress because many fear that allowing access to anyone but the user access would create “a backdoor.” Once that backdoor is created it’s almost possible to control who enters through it, making “Americans’ phones prime targets for hacking, data theft and exploitation.”