New York City built a $10 million iPhone-cracking lab

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GrayKey can bypass iPhone security
A passcode is the key to iPhone encryption. It keeps out criminals, and the police too.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

New York City works every day on hacking into thousands of iPhones, Androids, iPads, etc. The district attorney of Manhattan believes these contain evidence of crimes, and spent $10 million on a lab to find ways around or through iPhone encryption.

iPhone encryption locks out criminals and police

Any iPhone locked with a passcode is also encrypted. Even Apple doesn’t have the key. The only way the access the contents of the device is with the passcode.

This protects users from hackers and other cyber criminals, but also prevents law enforcement from using data on locked iPhones or iPads in investigations.

Phones and tablets running Google’s Android OS are also encrypted.

The response from Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA, is a phone-hacking lab, dubbed the High Technology Analysis Unit. FastCompany visited this facility, where there are about 3,000 devices that police want unlocked.

This lab can reportedly break into about half the phones it gets, often by guessing the user’s passcode. And it has equipment for the brute-force approach: trying hundreds or thousands of passcodes until the right one is input. But each new version of iOS or Android makes it harder.

The iOS backdoor controversy

Vance wants Apple to build a “backdoor” into the iPhone for police, something Apple adamantly refuses to do. It argues that inserting a way to allow law enforcement to circumvent iPhone encryption would open devices up to hackers too.

It’s not just Manhattan’s DA asking for a way through iPhone encryption — US Attorney General William Barr wants Apple to unlock two phones used by the gunman at the Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting last month. Apple says it has provided investigators with “all of the data in our possession.” But it won’t put a backdoor into iOS so the handsets can be unlocked.