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US district attorney calls for access to encrypted smartphone data

A report from US district attorney Cyrus Vance claims the encryption of data on mobile operating systems has had severe consequences for public safety

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has released a report calling for access to encrypted data on smartphones.

The report criticises Apple and Google for their decision to implement data encryption on their iOS and Android mobile operating systems, claiming “severe” consequences for public safety.

"Smartphones are ubiquitous, and there is almost no kind of case in which prosecutors have not used evidence from smartphones," the report said.

Vance claims that his office has 111 cases in which encryption has prevented access to phone data, according to Bloomberg News.

In the wake of the revelations of mass US surveillance of phones and the internet by whistleblower Edward Snowden, many technology firms have introduced encryption to retain their customers' trust.

The report poses several questions to Apple and Google about the technical details of the encryption they use and their policies of not responding to requests to decrypt data.

The emergence of encryption for all web-based communications has been identified as a major problem for law enforcement agencies.

“There should be no dark, ungoverned spaces on the internet,” Bernard Hogan-Howe, head of London's Metropolitan Police Service, told a briefing hosted by the security and resilience network of the business membership organisation London First in May 2015.

Data search warrants

Vance’s office has previously sent letters to Apple and Google asking some of these questions – but claims to have received no response, according to the BBC.

The report calls for smartphones to be made subject to search warrants that could compel Apple and Google to unlock encrypted data held on the device.

Vance proposes making this possible by introducing US federal legislation requiring technology companies to design smartphone operating systems with weaker encryption.

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However, industry commentators say the proposed move is not practical and could harm US commerce.

The report has fuelled the debate around encryption already intensified in the wake of last week’s terror attacks in Paris.

Law enforcement representatives have expressed frustration and concern about the fact that encryption is making vital smartphone data impossible to access, even with a search warrant.

Since the debate began, privacy groups, technology firms and security researchers have opposed the idea of back doors, warning that any security weaknesses will provide opportunities for cyber attackers.  

But according to Vance, his proposal covers only data stored on a device that has been seized in an arrest, for example, and does not cover data in motion – so would not allow unlawful surveillance.

“We do not want a government backdoor,” he is quoted as saying. “We do not want a key for the government and we don’t want to collect data on anyone.”

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