Should police officers and other law enforcement officials be able to access smartphones that may contain information about criminal behavior?
It’s a question that many people are asking right now as Apple moves to close a loophole that police have been using to unlock iPhones. In a recent statement, Apple outlines plans to protect the privacy of its iPhone users by removing this controversial gap in the device’s security.
How the iPhone loophole worked
In the past, police accessed the iPhone via its USB port. Devices from forensic services firms like Cellebrite and GrayShift allowed law enforcement to skirt security rules that typically prevent hacking by limiting the number of times someone can guess at the device’s password. In most situations where a phone has been stolen, providing an incorrect password too many times will permanently lock down the phone, making it nearly impossible to access the information within.
But devices like those provided by Cellebrite and GrayShift allowed police to evade these provisions for a minimal fee. In fact, many of the devices used by law enforcement officials can be acquired for as little as $50.
Unfortunately, not all law enforcement officials operate in a law-abiding manner. In some countries, police have used cracking devices to access information without first getting legal permission, and it’s this behavior that Apple has cited in moving to close the loophole.
“We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data,” Apple noted in its statement, which was released on June 13. “We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.”
Apple added that it’s not just police who use the USB port loophole to gain access to phones; the Cupertino, California-based company says the security gap is also often exploited by spies, crooks, and other people who are most certainly not operating in accordance with the rule of law.
It’s expected the move will draw the ire of the FBI in the United States and, potentially, the RCMP in Canada. To date, the FBI has occasionally pressed the U.S. government for more freedom to access information on smartphones.