New iPhone featured aimed at hackers could hinder law enforcement investigations

(WAFB) - A locked iPhone was one of the only clues left behind when Brittney Mills, a pregnant mother, was gunned down in her front door in April of 2015. Investigators believed it held important information they couldn't access, stalling the case for years.

"We sent legal requests, warrants to Apple, and they said they could not get into that phone because they built that phone, I think it was an iPhone 6, with the capability that law enforcement could not get into it," East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore explained.

Moore says after unsuccessfully battling the manufacturer of the phone, his office used a private company to gain access. It's a practice many law enforcement agencies are using these days. "We were able to find a third party vendor, Cellebrite, that was actually able to get into that phone, albeit a year later, and obtain information from that phone," Moore said.

But a new software update for the iPhone could stop those investigative methods in their tracks. The update, according to CNET, is called USB Restricted Mode. It would cut off access to the phone's lightning port if the phone hasn't been unlocked in the past hour. It's meant to stop identity thieves, but it could also lock out law enforcement.

"They've now built a system even better than the ones previously that we could not get into," Moore explained. "The technology we use now will no longer be able to get into the cell phones to find valuable information that could be lifesaving information. It could be information that sheds light on guilt or innocence of a defendant or assist with locating missing children."

Apple says they've gr anted more than 14,000 U.S. law enforcement requests for customer data access in 2017. While Moore says he understands the importance of privacy, their interest falls in the realm of the law. "We understand privacy, people's rights to privacy, but we're asking for the ability to get in a phone with a warrant, not just get in the phone and look ourselves, only by a court order," he adds.

Moore says reaching out to a third party takes time and money, around $1,500 to $3,000 per phone. Right now, Moore says 175 phones are sitting in evidence at the Baton Rouge Police Department.

"Because we don't have the technology, and/or we don't have the money to hire a third party to get into that phone," Moore said. "It's this cat and mouse game, but now, hopefully third parties out there like Cellebrite will be able to now develop another to get into a potential iPhone."

Moore adds that he understands phone companies have "legitimate concerns about privacy, particularly in other third world countries that maybe don't have law enforcement go through the warrant requirements, I understand that" he said. "But we're talking about here in the United States. Maybe they could manufacture phones here or we could only have phones here that we could only get into through a court order, but at this point, that is not the law or the case."

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