U.K. cops use low-tech method to get around iPhone encryption


iPhone hack
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

While some law enforcement agencies use hackers to try and break iPhone encryption, detectives in the U.K. found a simpler solution: mugging suspects before they get the chance to lock their phones.

According to a report from the BBC, the tactic was revealed after a cybercrime unit smashed a fake credit card fraud racket:

“Officers realised crucial evidence in the investigation was concealed on a suspect’s iPhone – but it would be unobtainable if the device was locked. So a covert team seized it in the street while the suspect was on a call — beating the security settings.”

This unorthodox workaround comes as concerns mount over the types of information that might be locked away on smartphones owned by criminals and terrorists. Apple’s strong encryption, and refusal to build a backdoor into iOS, earned praise from privacy and security advocates (and scorn from the Department of Justice).

The battle over whether Apple should help law enforcement hack iPhones was probably the biggest story the company was involved with this year.

The U.K. authorities’ decision to beat iPhone security in this way reportedly came after officers considered forcing a suspect to unlock their phone using Touch ID, only to find out that they didn’t have permission to do so.

In the end, they opted for a legal “street robbery” by waiting for the suspect to use his phone and then swooping in to grab it. As the suspect was restrained by some officers, another was given the job of continually swiping the iPhone’s display to make sure the handset wouldn’t lock before the necessary data could be obtained.

As a result of the seizure, police were able to crack the crime ring. The suspect has been jailed for five-and-a-half years.

Cracking encryption has been a big theme in the U.K. as of late. Recently, the country’s government pushed through its Investigatory Powers Act, aka the “snooper’s charter,” giving it unprecedented abilities to undermine encryption and push for surveillance backdoors.