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The explosive pace of digital technology is changing police work. Over the past few weeks, we've reported on some new tools police are using; for example, Twitter scanners and license plate readers. Well, police will tell you that the most valuable tool is one they don't even own - your smartphone. Seized phones are now fundamental to every kind of investigation. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, police are finding those phones increasingly difficult to open.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Rolf Norton is a homicide detective in Seattle. If you ever run into him at a crime scene, he'll likely be watching to see if you own a smartphone.
ROLF NORTON: I'm thinking there's probably a wealth of information that just got tucked into your pocket, and something that we'd like to get our hands on.
KASTE: It's got your calls, your emails, your calendar, your photos, your maps. That could be his whole case, in one convenient package. That's also why more people now keep their phones locked, which means Norton sometimes has to turn on the charm.
NORTON: You know, maybe you've established a rapport and you're getting along with this person, and they have a reason to want you to get in there too, you know, maybe trying to back up their story or whatnot. We'll reach out to that person and say, hey, your phone's locked, you know, we'd like to inspect it. We're probably going to be getting a warrant, you know. Would you give us your password?
KASTE: But what if you refuse? Jeffrey Fisher is a law professor at Stanford, and he's arguing a smartphone case at the Supreme Court next month. He says the courts haven't really settled whether you have a right withhold the password.
JEFFREY FISHER: You're taking a risk that you can have anything from contempt of court to obstruction of justice, increased criminal punishment, for failing to cooperate - and all kinds of other problems.
KASTE: But forget about the legalities. There's a more practical consideration, here. It may be the cops can get around your password.
NIDIA COLON: So this software is pretty cool.
KASTE: Nidia Colon shows off a phone-copying system at a company called Brickhouse Security in Manhattan. I let her plug it into an iPhone of mine - an old one.
COLON: So as you see here, it's acquiring all the data in your phone; from messages, contacts, call history, all the way down to your recovery data, even your tracking history.
KASTE: This is just one of the phone-copying systems that are on the market. The police sometimes call these digital forensics kits. The CEO at Brickhouse is Todd Morris. He says the smartphone makers definitely do not support this kind of software; it relies instead on a kind of global group effort.
TODD MORRIS: It's a collaboration. There's no way that any one company can keep up with Apple or Google. You use programmers from all around the world, and they share what they find.
KASTE: Forensic software relies on hacks. The most basic is the brute-force attack. The software just throws pass codes at a phone until it opens. But that only really works on short, four-digit codes. With longer passwords, you need another way in, some kind of a security hole. When hackers find one of these, they pass it around and it eventually makes its way into the forensic kits. But that takes time.
Dave Dunn is a security consultant who used to copy phones for the Seattle Police Department.
DAVE DUNN: In some cases, you'll have a handset that comes in, say, Jan. 1st of the year, and you can't get into it. And technology actually develops over the course of that year so that you can get into it six or nine months later.
KASTE: He says the phones' manufacturers keep making their systems harder to crack, even by them. Dunn says the cops sometimes ship iPhones to Apple, and find there's a limit to what the company can recover.
DUNN: They are only able to extract information from apps that are currently open.
KASTE: That's because newer iPhones automatically encrypt information as it's saved. Security has become a selling point, especially on phones marketed to corporate customers. It also reflects the tech world's growing distrust of government, especially after the revelations about NSA spying.
MOXIE MARLINKSPIKE: You know, I think that, at this point, it's very difficult to trust any kind of policy-based solution.
KASTE: This is Moxie Marlinspike. That's the pseudonym for a hacker who helped to create an encryption system for smartphones, called Whisper. He's like a lot of tech people when he says he doesn't want to depend on the law to protect privacy.
MARLINKSPIKE: There's something empowering about not asking for that type of protection, you know; that there's, I think, something empowering about just providing it for ourselves.
KASTE: Still, technological fixes can backfire. Take the case of the iPhone 5s. It comes with a fingerprint reader. Cryptographically, that's a lot better than a four-digit pin but legally, maybe not. That's because you might be able to claim a constitutional right to withhold a password, but the Supreme Court has already said that the police don't need a warrant to get access to your finger.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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CORNISH: On NPR.org, take a look at a more detailed list of some of the ways police can bypass the lock on Androids and iPhones.
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