The answers to the shooting death of a Louisiana woman could be locked in her iPhone 5, but without a password not even Apple can access the data.
It’s an unsolved murder from April that law enforcement officials say is symbolic of a growing number of cases stalled by amped-up security features on Apple and Google-operated devices.
Brittney Mills, 29, was 8 months pregnant when she opened the door to someone who wanted to borrow her car in Baton Rouge on April 24. She refused and was shot several times. Her baby, Brenton Mills, died a week later.
Mills had the iOS-8 operating software on her phone, but the encryption system – intended to protect users’ privacy – has made owners’ text messages, phone calls and contact lists inaccessible since September 2014. In the Louisiana case, cell phone data, including a personal diary, was not backed up on iCloud.
A subpoena seeking the data resulted in a missive from Apple saying that because the phone is “running iOS version 8 or a later version” the “extraction cannot be completed.”
About 1,300 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, frustrated prosecutors in New Orleans have an ally in Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
Vance has become a national voice in the push against the revved-up encryption efforts of the world’s largest phone software companies to allow law enforcement access to critical information. He met last week in his office with East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore and the Mills family.
“We use our cell phones every day and so do the criminals,” Vance said after meeting with Barbara, 60, and Tia Mills, 34, the mother and sister of the victim, who vented their frustrations.
Vance has testified before the U.S. Senate’s Commission on the Judiciary and recently issued a 42-page report detailing the need for access to smartphones search warrants. The measures, Vance said, would solve violent crimes and help exonerate wrongly suspected individuals.
“I truly believe that this is of such consequence that Congress needs to air the issue in public hearings,” he said.
“I don’t want a ‘backdoor.’ I want Apple to unlock its own phones,” Vance added.
During the days of older iOS versions, court orders were generally able to produce information prosecutors wanted.
Brittney Mills “kept a detailed diary and the diary was behind a dummy app on the phone,” according to Moore.
“We are left with holding a device that has potential information about the killer and we can’t get into it,” he said.
Barbara Mills, a retired nurse, said the tech companies are ignoring the pleas of crime victims and their kin.
“They’re looking into the future (and at) privacy but what about the victims?” she railed. “(Brittney) can’t speak for herself. I don’t have any rights and I want law enforcement to be able to access that phone.”
Proponents of encryption say it is much to the benefit of the consumer to have encryption-protected devices on the market and that there is no way at present to keep bad actors out while letting law enforcement in.
To weaken encryption “exposes people to an infinite world of hazards,” would have “ripple effects throughout the entire world” and would create a new breeding for cyber crime, a technology expert told the Daily News.
The Mills case gained attention when it was revealed that former Louisiana State University gridiron star La’el Collins was a person of interest, though he was not a named suspect.
Mills told relatives that Collins was the father of her unborn child but DNA tests later disproved it. Collins, now on the Dallas Cowboys, was reportedly going to be a high-paid NFL draft pick but settled for a free-agent contract after his name was tarred by the Mills probe.
Vance, whose office handles about 100,000 cases per year, says there have been 111 instances in which warrants can’t be executed because of cell phone encryption.
Reps for Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.