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Police Ambush Criminal To Bypass iPhone Security

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

How to get around the problem of a locked smartphone? Just ambush the criminal when he is using it. Simples

British police have developed a low tech but highly effective strategy to deal with the problem of accessing vital data on locked smartphones.

Police detectives Scotland Yard’s cybercrime unit took down a fake credit card fraud racket by apparently legally ‘mugging’ or ambushing the criminals while they were using their phones, in order to bypass smartphone encryption.

The development comes as law enforcement increasingly battles to uncover vital data from locked devices, as witnessed by the FBI fight with Apple earlier this year over a locked terrorist iPhone.

iphone mobile fingerpint scanner security © Tetiana Yurchenko ShutterstockStreet Mugging

During their investigation Scotland Yard detectives from Operation Falcon, the specialist team investigating fraud, apparently became aware that crucial evidence was concealed on a suspect’s iPhone.

But that information would have been difficult to access, if the device was locked.

Therefore according to the BBC, a covert team decided to seize it in the street while the suspect was on a call, thereby bypassing the smartphone’s security settings.

The police were targeting a suspect called Gabriel Yew, who had been under investigation for allegedly making fake credit cards that gangs were using to buy luxury goods. The detectives suspected that Yew’s iPhone was used exclusively to communicate to other members of the network.

Of course modern iPhone’s can be unlocked using a fingerprint, but the police realised they had no legal power to force the suspects finger onto the phone’s fingerprint reader.

So in June the police opted to carry out their own ‘mugging’ of Yew, using a similar snatch technique to a thief, said the BBC. Yew was tailed until he was seen unlocking his phone to make a call, and that is when the officers pounced.

An officer continually swiped through the phone’s screens to prevent it from locking before they had downloaded its data.

“The challenges of pin code access and encryption on some phones make it harder to access evidence in a timely fashion than ever before,” said Det Ch Insp Andrew Gould who led the operation was quoted as saying the BBC.

“Officers had to seize Yew’s phone from him in the street. This evidence was crucial to the prosecution.”

The iPhone did apparently contained vital evidence, and Yew eventually pleaded guilty to fraud and weapons offences. He was jailed jailed for five and a half years this week.

FBI Battle

The British police tactic was certainly a lot cheaper and less eventful than what the FBI had to contend with earlier this year.

The US feds eventually paid so called ‘grey hat’ hackers to crack a iPhone, after Apple refused to co-operate to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook.

Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik had murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December, in a deadly terrorist attack that shocked America.

Encryption remains a very touchy subject. Leading technology companies and privacy campaigners have consistently opposed efforts to weaken encryption systems.

Last year, New York officials called for weaker encryption levels on smartphones in order for law enforcement to be able to easily access the data stored on the devices.

Quiz: Can you protect your privacy online?