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In a Manhattan vault, investigators try to unlock encrypted iPhones



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NEW YORK – Inside a steel-encased vault in lower Manhattan, investigators are bombarding an Apple iPhone 7 with a jumble of numerical codes generated by nearby computers.

The grinding exercise has continued for the past 21 months with a singular aim: Crack the phone’s passcode so police can extract potential evidence in an aging attempted murder investigation.

Despite the formidable resources of a $10 million cyber lab operated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office—including costly assistance provided by private sleuths—so far the phone has won.

Last month, Attorney General William Barr revived the titanic struggle between law enforcement and Big Tech when he disclosed that the FBI couldn’t unlock two iPhones used by a Saudi officer who opened fire at a Navy base in Florida in December. 

Yet the breadth of the ground war waged against encrypted phones, tablets and other devices seized in criminal inquiries is perhaps best appreciated within the secure doors of this Manhattan laboratory.

Steven Moran, director of the High Technology Analysis Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, describes how investigators try to crack encrypted smartphones in a special steel-encased vault. It was built to block outside radio frequencies, preventing suspects from remotely erasing their devices.

More than 8,000 devices have poured into the facility since 2014. Each year, more of them are locked, rising from 24% in 2014 to 64% last year. For Apple devices, it’s gone from 60% to 82%.

Nearly 2,500 of the locked devices remain inaccessible to investigators, hindering investigations into child exploitation, financial crimes, theft, violence and other crimes. 

The numbers illustrate a frustration shared by law enforcement agencies across the country.



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