For law enforcement, iOS and Android encryption is a matter of huge concern. Smartphone data can reveal a lot about suspected terrorists, criminals and those being investigated for rather dangerous crimes like mass shootings tec.
If investigations into these devices are conducted carefully, the data can be used in court as evidence.
This whole issue of encrypted devices has been in the news for a while. It was first dragged up when the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter. Apple had refused on the grounds that if they gave into FBI’s requests and unlocked one phone, they could be pulled up any time by any other authority to unlock devices for them. The existence of a backdoor is detrimental to the security of the device.
The issue of encrypted phones and unlocking requests came up again in December last year when a Naval base in Pensacola, Florida was attacked by a gunman. The suspected shooter had two iPhones both of which were locked. Apple was asked once more to unlock the devices.
Critics have argued that the government having easy access to your private data pretty much defeats the purpose of the existence of encrypted data in the first place. However, authorities have allegedly found a way around this through apps, but that remains to be seen.
The case in question where an app could make it possible for the FBI to unlock a device without taking help from the smartphone maker pertained to Apple iPhones. But, forensic investigators are of the opinion that when it comes to Android encryption, the job is getting tougher by the day.
Detective Rex Kiser, who conducts digital forensic examinations for the Fort Worth Police Department, told Vice: “A year ago we couldn’t get into iPhones, but we could get into all the Androids. Now we can’t get into a lot of the Androids.”
Vice’s investigation showed that Cellebrite, one of the most prominent companies that government agencies hire to crack smartphones, has a cracking tool that can” break into any iPhone made up to and including the iPhone X”. Cellebrite pulls out data such as GPS records, messages, call logs, contacts, and even data from specific apps such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc all of which can be incredibly helpful in prosecuting criminals.
However, Cellebrite is much less successful with Android encryption on prominent handsets. For example, the tool could not extract any social media, internet browsing, or GPS data from devices such as the Google Pixel 2 and Samsung Galaxy S9. In the case of the Huawei P20 Pro, the cracking software literally got nothing, reports Vice.
“Some of the newer operating systems are harder to get data from than others. I think a lot of these [phone] companies are just trying to make it harder for law enforcement to get data from these phones … under the guise of consumer privacy,” Kiser told Vice.
Owning one of the Android phones just mentioned or newer phones from those smartphone makers does not automatically make your device uncrackable. Cellebrite’s tool might not work on your phone but investigators can still extract data they need. Of course, the process is labour-intensive and time-consuming, but it can be done.
According to Vice, even a phone like the iPhone 11 Pro Max can be cracked – it just takes time.
Amidst all this security uncertainty, the only thing to take home is the fact that Android phones might be safer alternatives to iPhones if security and privacy is your main concern. But law enforcement organisations aren’t the only people after your data, criminals can also use the same tools on you. If you want to avoid it by a short stretch, for now, Android might be your best bet.