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Officials keeping eye on cellphone dispute

Local law enforcement officers say access to digital content needed to protect citizens

posted Feb. 20, 2016 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Eric Lindquist. bio | email

As cellphones become the nearly constant companion of most people, the mobile devices increasingly represent the key to unlocking the answers that help police solve crimes.

That’s why local law enforcement agencies are watching closely to see how this week’s high-profile dispute between the FBI and Apple plays out.

“It’s going to have significant ramifications on us locally,” said Deputy Chief Matt Rokus of the Eau Claire Police Department.

The case arose Tuesday when a federal judge in California ordered Apple to help investigators unlock and decrypt the iPhone 5C owned by Syed Farook, one of the deceased perpetrators of the Dec. 2 terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

Apple, one of the world’s most valuable companies, refused, igniting a furious public relations battle about the potential conflict between the rights to privacy and security.

Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer falls squarely on the side of law enforcement needing the ability to access the phone — and potentially other devices right here in the Chippewa Valley — to protect the safety and security of citizens.

“I understand people’s right to privacy, but when it comes to criminal conduct and future safety, I think the court has every right to make the company comply,” Cramer said. “If we can thwart any other potential terrorism plans out there, that’s critical.”

In this case, he noted, “the company isn’t saying they can’t comply, they’re saying they won’t.”

But Apple CEO Tim Cook argued in a public letter to customers that the government’s demands constituted a “chilling” breach of privacy that would threaten the security of its customers’ data.

Cook maintained the software the FBI wants doesn’t exist and that to comply with the court order “the same Apple engineers who build strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe.”

Permission needed

Local law enforcement officers stressed that the government isn’t asking for any trade secrets or for unrestricted access to people’s cellphone data.

“We never search a phone without a court order or permission of the owner,” Rokus said.

Cramer pointed out that officers need to show a strong legal justification to a judge — a neutral party — before being granted a court order to search a cellphone.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, maintains the Apple case attempts to expand this government power to a new and dangerous level.

“We’re supporting Apple in their fight with the FBI to resist this effort to force them to hack into their own phones,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

He emphasized that Apple isn’t concealing evidence because the company doesn’t have any way at this point to obtain the information the government is seeking. 

Companies such as Apple should be free to offer a phone that stores their customers’ information securely, and the government should not be able to compel private businesses to essentially write new software that would create a back door around those protections, Ahmuty said.

Pressing issue

This is not just about the phone of one terrorist or some theoretical debate that may or may not be relevant in other cases.

While police still rely on traditional investigative tools such as searching for physical evidence or obtaining witness statements, local law enforcement agencies indicated that cellphone evidence — from texts, calls, photos, GPS data, emails or other forms of messaging — potentially could come into play in the vast majority of cases today.

“Our experience is that the need for digital evidence has become paramount,” said Kyle Roder, spokesman for the Eau Claire Police Department. “So much information is stored on people’s phones.”

The recent sting in which area law enforcement officers arrested 10 suspects on charges related to online solicitation of sex from minors is a good example, Rokus said. Part of that investigation involved recovering the chat logs or text messages those suspects exchanged with their targets and other potentially unknown victims. 

“There’s a very real public safety element involved in a case like that,” said Rokus, who also serves as advisory board chairman for the Chippewa Valley Regional Computer Forensics Lab, a partnership among the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office and Eau Claire and Altoona police.

Cramer said child abduction cases are another example of where cellphone tracking can be vital for officers to find a missing boy or girl.

Rokus added that Eau Claire police detectives apply for court orders to search people’s mobile devices on a weekly basis. But even when the court grants permission, police sometimes run into cases with certain models of phones in which suspects refuse to reveal their access codes and police can’t get past encryption or other security features.

Vast implications

While Ahmuty acknowledged that slippery slope arguments are overused, he said the Apple case definitely has the potential to expand the nation’s status as a surveillance society beyond anything author George Orwell ever imagined when describing “Big Brother” in his novel “1984.”

Ahmuty fears the government eventually could gain access to an incredible amount of personal data if it starts requiring back doors to all of the technologies that exist today.

“Once the government gets this software, what’s to prevent them from using it again and what’s to prevent a repressive regime or an industrial spy or someone who wants to steal your identity from using it?” he asked. “The bottom line is this: Are companies going to be able to offer secure products?”

Ahmuty accused the FBI of overreaching by citing a 1789 law as the basis to justify its request about 2016 technology.

Rokus insisted Eau Claire police are mindful that they are responsible for protecting individual rights as well as ensuring public safety.

An important point to remember, Cramer added, is that average, law-abiding residents never have to worry about the government searching their cellphones.

“The only time you have to worry is when you get involved in illegal activity,” Cramer said.

With technology and the way people use it always changing, police said legislation and case law are often a step behind the criminals. 

Indeed, Cramer warned, local authorities will lose criminal cases if advances in encryption and security technology make it even more difficult for them to access digital information.

“Technology took off so fast,” he said, “that now our criminal code has to follow up and come up to speed.”

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