Cellphone passcode could be key in Baton Rouge murder

Cellphone passcode could be key in Baton Rouge murder
Brittney Mills (Source: Facebook)
Brittney Mills (Source: Facebook)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A battle between Apple and the federal government over accessing iPhone data could shape what happens in a Baton Rouge murder investigation.

Brittney Mills, 29, was shot and killed last April after investigators said she responded to a knock on her door. She was pregnant at the time, and after doctors delivered her son, he died just days later.

Investigators with the Baton Rouge Police Department believe that a cellphone belonging to Mills could hold the keys to her murder. However, investigators are unable to access the content of her iPhone.

"The fact that her phone is encrypted and we are unable to obtain her password has thrown up a stumbling block for the investigators in the case," said Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a spokesman for BRPD.

Her phone has a passcode, not known to family and friends. However, Baton Rouge investigators are cautious to continue typing in random codes because iPhones have a setting where after 10 failed passcode attempts, all of the data on the phone erases.

BRPD filed a search warrant, asking Apple for help extracting the phone's data. Apple's email response was blunt and straightforward:

"Since the device is running iOS version 8 or a later version, the iOS extraction cannot be completed."

Older versions of the iPhone operating system did not have such encryption features. Previously investigators could use phones to gain information.

The response from Apple was frustrating for investigators.

"There's a potential we could get into her phone and not find any leads, but we won't know that until we get there," said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore.

The case in Baton Rouge has striking similarities to the terrorist investigation in San Bernardino, California where 14 people died. FBI investigators there also ran into passcode problems when trying to access an iPhone owned by one of the attackers.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered that Apple bypass security functions on the phone, possibly installing a program to negate the 10-password rule so they could get inside.

In a post on the company website, Apple CEO Tim Cook objected to this order and is currently planning to appeal.

"While we believe the FBI's intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect," he wrote.

Moore objected to this, saying in extreme circumstances sometimes liberties must be given up for justice to be served. That includes the Mills murder investigation.

"The question is are you able to live in a civilized society, and you want justice. You have to give up some of your liberties and this is one that I think is reasonable for you to give up," Moore said.

Cook is also concerned that by creating new software to bypass encryption and get into one phone, his company could in effect be opening the floodgates for other people, including hackers, to unlock cellphones thereby putting people at risk.

"The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that's simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices," Cook wrote.

Moore again objected, saying privacy rights could still be protected if judges held the keys, much like they did with search warrants for houses.

"I have to go through a lot of stuff to get into your home, I expect the same for the phone," Moore said. "People conduct businesses on their phone, same way murders do. It's been a life saver for us, and its supported our cases, and now we have to do without it."

Dr. Tia Mills, sister of Brittney Mills, said the family is frustrate by Apple's plan to appeal the court's order, calling the company selfish, especially when their help could help solve the case.

Mills' sister is currently working with state leaders to try to create rules that could prevent companies from restricting law enforcement access to phones.

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