Seattle police want device that unlocks Apple products; King County already has it

SEATTLE — A controversial device is being used by the King County Sheriff’s Office to solve local crimes where evidence may be contained on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

However, privacy experts believe even people who aren’t suspected of breaking the law should be concerned.

The device -- called GrayKey -- gives detectives access to locked Apple electronics, which are in the hands of 64% of all Americans.

The Seattle Police Department would also like to use GrayKey to access criminal evidence but can’t until the city's Technology Information Department agrees.

According to the city's Chief Privacy Officer, Ginger Armbruster, and the American Civil Liberties Union, GrayKey could violate Seattle's surveillance ordinance.

This is how the device works: When evidence of a crime could be hidden on a phone, tablet or computer, detectives file a search warrant for access.

In King County Superior Court, search warrants are filed every day, especially in child pornography investigations.

When a judge agrees the evidence is legal and necessary, most tech companies then hand over the information, but not Apple, according to the spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office.  “All the other companies are good,” Sgt Ryan Abbott told KIRO 7.

Other companies will “unlock the phones and they will provide the information that we need.” However, Abbott said, “Apple won’t unlock the device when we present them with a search warrant” signed by a judge.

In 2015, Apple declined to unlock the iPhone used by a gunman in San Bernardino, California after he shot and killed 14 people in what the FBI called an act of terrorism.  For years, Apple has worked to "help customers defend against…intrusions into their personal data" according to the company's statement after a recent upgrade disabled access through iPhones' Lightning port.

However, GrayKey allows law enforcement to access Apple products by unlocking the devices.

Instead of having to send out a device for a costly one-time only forensic search, GrayKey is available for purchase to law enforcement agencies at an annual cost of $15,000.

Abbott calls GrayKey “just another tool that allows us to do our job” and confirmed the King County Sheriff's Office has been using GrayKey to collect evidence for nearly a year.

Now the Seattle Police Department wants GrayKey, too, which alarms the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think it’s certainly a concern because right now, we don’t even know the capabilities of the technology. That hasn’t been discussed in public,” Skankar Narayan, the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project Director told KIRO 7.

“I think there are serious civil liberties concerns about the technology.  It certainly is a surveillance technology,” Narayan added.

However, Abbott with the King County Sheriff’s Office said GrayKey is “absolutely not” surveillance. “With this tool, you have to have the physical phone. You have to hook the phone into the device and again, the only time we’re going to use this is with a search warrant, signed by a judge.”

“It doesn’t do any surveillance of any type,” Abbott told KIRO 7.

Still, tech and privacy experts are worried - if engineers at the Atlanta-based company that makes GrayKey were able to figure out a way to allow law enforcement access to locked Apple products - someone else could, too.

“Somebody else could potentially be misusing those vulnerabilities for malicious purposes,” MalwareBytes’ Thomas Reed told KIRO 7’s news affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida.  Reed was one of the first to acquire and publish an image of GrayKey after being tipped-off to its existence by a police source.

“He does work in law enforcement but was uncomfortable with some of the aspects of what the GrayKey is able to do, and so he felt that the public had a right to know about that.  That it shouldn’t be a secret,” Reed said.

Narayan of the ACLU agrees and believes, before the SPD gets GrayKey, more needs to be known about how it works and that the public should be able to weigh-in.  “We think it’s a game-changer and really should go to some public review.”

Apple’s latest iOS has reportedly figured out a way to block GrayKey.  But if GrayKey engineers figure out a new way in, Seattle’s Chief Privacy Officer, Ginger Armbruster confirmed, the device will still have to pass a privacy review before the Seattle Police Department will be able to purchase the device.

In response to KIRO 7’s questions about GrayKey, an Apple spokesman released information that the company will launch its Law Enforcement Support Program by the end of 2018 to “obtain responsive data from Apple.”

Following this link to read the full statement from Apple.

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