The iPhone that could solve a Louisiana mom’s murder languishes unused
Police believe the pregnant mother’s smartphone may contain texts or diary entries revealing who killed her. But the data remains hidden by encryption, guarded by an unknown access code and inaccessible to investigators.
The prospect of hidden information intrigues the victim’s family. In an echo of the best-known cases involving iPhones used by a terrorist in San Bernardino, California, and a drug dealer in Brooklyn, Brittney Mills survivors say device maker Apple hasn’t done enough to find the killer.
“In so many words, they refused to help us,” said Tia Mills, sister of Brittney, 29. “I was really amazed about that.”
The murder offers one example of hundreds across the country where families and police are grappling with the decision of smartphone makers such as Apple to add encryption that law enforcement cannot even crack. with a warrant. Unlike the Brooklyn and California cases where the US Justice Department fought for investigators, local police and crime victims say they are largely on their own.
(Also see: US Data Access Appeal Decision in New York (iPhone Case)
“It’s not just a terrorist issue. We’re ordinary people,” Tia Mills said in an interview. “We don’t have the muscles to fight Apple. We don’t have the money to go through the courts. We just want what’s right. And what’s right is allowing us access on the phone.”
She and her mother and brother came to Washington on March 1 to attend a House Judiciary Committee hearing on smartphone encryption. The family members were not asked to testify, but stood up when introduced by their congressman, Rep. Cedric Richmond.
The Democrat also set up a meeting in his House office between representatives from Apple and the prosecutor handling the case.
“They said they would speak with engineers” about ways to get the data from the phone, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “There were no promises, no guarantees.”
The Mills family is trapped by the same privacy barrier facing the FBI, which won a court order asking Apple to help disable security features on an iPhone used by a shooter during the December attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple declined, saying it would make all iPhone users less protected against government and criminal encroachment on data that could include bank statements, family photos and intimate communications.
Asked about the Mills case, Apple spokesman Fred Sainz referred a reporter to a statement from CEO Tim Cook, who said the FBI’s request in the San Bernardino case was a “crippling attack.” against civil liberties.
Cook described the request as an “unprecedented step that threatens the safety of our customers”. It has gained support from tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Apple’s software has left criminal investigations hampered across the country, according to law enforcement. The debate is “as real as a killer gone free, as real as a pedophile plotting his next prey,” the National Sheriffs’ Association, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys Inc. said in a statement. court case weighing the FBI’s claim in the San Bernardino case.
(Also see: US police say criminals love Apple iPhone because of encryption)
In New York City alone, authorities seized 205 iPhones containing information that prosecutors were unable to locate, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the House committee.
“Criminals understand that this new operating system offers them a cloak of secrecy,” Vance said. “And they’re literally laughing at us, ladies and gentlemen.”
Apple responded to requests for encrypted information before introducing its last major software update in 2014, Vance told lawmakers. Mills phone has updated software.
“The default device encryption has had a profound impact on my office and others like it,” Vance said.
According to a report compiled by Vance’s office, an inmate held at Rikers Island in New York called Apple’s iOS8 operating system, which offers encryption by default, a “gift from God.” The inmate said Vance was “eating with Apple” and added, “if our phones are running on this iOS8 software, they can’t open my phone.”
During the March 1 hearing, Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell told lawmakers, “We are working cooperatively” with law enforcement. The company says it receives about 10,000 requests a year from law enforcement.
“We have a team of dedicated professionals who are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to assist law enforcement,” Sewell told lawmakers. Apple engineers were made available to advise the FBI on “investigative alternatives” following the San Bernardino attack, he said.
Apple policy calls for handing over content to the so-called iCloud, a storage site that allows phone users to save information, including emails and text messages, when presented with a warrant signed by a judge.
Apple says it provides information to law enforcement 80% of the time it is requested. This figure includes requests for assistance in locating stolen phones.
In cases where access to a customer’s data is sought, the company says it leaked content in just 27% of cases in the US, typically by handing over information to an iCloud account, which it did in the Mills case. It indicates that it only does so when legally compelled and informs customers when it is allowed to do so. Apple provides “the most restricted set of information possible,” according to its website.
The Baton Rouge phone had apparently not recently copied its data to iCloud. The information it contained was old, said Moore, the prosecutor. “There is a period of three months during which we had no information,” he said.
A search warrant issued to Apple in September for information on the phone itself resulted in a short email. “Because the device is running iOS version 8 or later, the iOS extraction cannot be completed,” the email says.
In the San Bernardino case, the company said it shouldn’t have to change its software to help the FBI hack into the device. A hearing is scheduled for March 22 before US Investigating Judge Sheri Pym.
Meanwhile, Brittney Mills’ murder remains unsolved.
Mills was about eight months pregnant on April 24 when she opened the door and someone asked to use her car. She refused and was shot multiple times, DA Moore said in a letter to senators.
She died during the operation; doctors delivered the child, Brenton, who died a week later. A resident of the home heard what happened at the front door, but did not see the attacker, according to the letter.
Police tried to guess the iPhone 5s passcode several times and then stopped, aware that an iPhone security feature erases data after too many passcode attempts, a Moore said.
Now the family is waiting.
“I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed,” said Tia Mills, 33, the victim’s sister. “I’m disappointed because I’m sure if this were to happen to any of their family members, someone dear to them, they would do whatever it takes.”
© 2016 Bloomberg L.P.
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