New York Prosecutor Calls for Law to Fight Apple Data Encryption

Spice Android One Dream Uno Smartphone
A Spice Android One Dream Uno smartphone, manufactured by Spice Mobility Ltd., sits on display during Google Inc's Android One smartphone launch event in New Delhi. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

Apple Inc. and Google Inc. should be legally required to give police access to customer data necessary to investigate crimes, New York County’s top prosecutor said.

Federal and state governments should consider passing laws that forbid smartphones, tablets and other such devices from being “sealed off from law enforcement,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today in an interview at a cybersecurity conference in New York.

Vance challenged Apple and Google, which last year said their new smartphones automatically encrypt stored data in a way that essentially shields photographs, documents and contact lists from unwanted eyes, including thieves, hackers and the government.

“It’s developed into a sort of high-stakes game,” Vance said. “They’ve eliminated accessibility in order to market the product. Now that means we have to figure out how to solve a problem that we didn’t create.”

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems together accounted for more than 95 percent of smartphone shipments through the first three quarters of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, Niki Christoff, declined to comment in an e-mail. A spokesman for Cupertino, California-based Apple, Steve Dowling, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail for comment.

Going ‘Rogue’

Earlier today Vance gave the keynote speech at the conference, hosted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, saying he was going “rogue” by speaking out on the matter. He made an emotional plea that police might not be able to stop crimes against children or solve murders without access to the data.

He said law enforcement agencies haven’t spoken in a unified voice. FBI Director James Comey is scheduled to speak at the conference tomorrow.

Technology companies have been increasing security measures for consumers following several high profile hacking incidents as well as revelations in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that some in the industry had cooperated with government spying programs.

Apple and Google said in September that their new phones would automatically scramble data so that a digital key kept by the owner is needed to unlock it, making it harder for detectives to examine the content of suspects’ phones without their knowledge or cooperation.

Vance said he has talked with lawmakers about crafting the new legal requirements, though he declined to name any of them.

“This is an issue of public safety,” Vance said. “The companies made a conscious decision -- which they marketed -- to make these devices inaccessible. Now it’s our job to figure out how we can do our job in that environment.”

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