Local police departments in all 50 states use hacking tools to unlock smartphones
Police spend thousands of dollars to break into smartphones.
The findings of the digital liberties nonprofit Upturn brought to light something deeply concerning regarding police practices. As revealed, law enforcement agencies from all 50 states have used mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs) to extract every piece of data from smartphones. They extracted messages, calling history, emails, photos, videos, location history, app data, and pretty much anything in between. Once extracted, the data can be programmatically searched.
Considering the amount of personal data stored in our smartphones, it is almost like a “window to the soul,” as one data expert gallantly portrayed it. One of the most disturbing aspects of this report is that these tools are used not just for significant harm cases but also for low-level cases such as marijuana possession, graffiti, public intoxication, petty theft, and more. Given how common are these police interventions and searches nowadays, it is very likely that this technology disproportionately is used against minorities.
The report also reveals that law enforcement agencies used this tech hundreds of thousands of times to extract personal data from smartphones in the last five years. Many times they did that without any warrant.
Emma Weil, Logan Koepke, Harlan Yu, Tinuola Dada, and Urmila Janardan, the activists that brought this to the public eye, believe that this is a “dangerous expansion” of police investigatory powers.
Upturn researchers also point out that in 2011, 35% of all Americans owned a smartphone. In 2020, more than 81% of all Americans own a smartphone. Moreover, people of color, minorities, and people with low income, depend solely on their smartphones to go online.
Civil liberty groups are already on their feet and are calling for limited use of this technology.
Law enforcement agencies obtained these smartphone hacking tools from companies such as AccessData, Cellebrite, and Grayshift. On average, law enforcement agencies spend between $9,000 and $20,000 to purchase and license these tools.
The Upturn report also reveals that when these tools couldn’t penetrate certain smartphones, such as the newest iPhone models, they sent smartphones to firms such as Cellebrite. There, Cellebrite experts unlocked these phones. To that end, law enforcement agencies still pay thousands of dollars for unlocking a single smartphone.
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