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Maricopa Co. Attorney stops issuing iPhones after Apple/FBI conflict
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Maricopa Co. Attorney stops issuing iPhones after Apple/FBI conflict

  • An Apple iPhone 6s sits on the steps of the Maricopa County Administration building in Phoenix. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it will no longer issue iPhones to new employees or as upgrades to existing devices in wake of the legal battle between Apple and the FBI surrounding the investigation of the shooting in San Bernardino in late 2015.
    Travis Arbon/Cronkite NewsAn Apple iPhone 6s sits on the steps of the Maricopa County Administration building in Phoenix. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it will no longer issue iPhones to new employees or as upgrades to existing devices in wake of the legal battle between Apple and the FBI surrounding the investigation of the shooting in San Bernardino in late 2015.

PHOENIX – The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday it will stop distributing iPhones to employees in the wake of a national legal battle between Apple and the FBI.

Concerns over electronic privacy and police investigations rose to the forefront of public consciousness this month after a federal judge ordered Apple help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in last year’s San Bernardino attack.

Apple claims unlocking the device could compromise security for all iPhone users, while the FBI contends the phone’s contents are critical for continuing its investigation of the attack.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he made a decision that his office cannot “in good conscience issue iPhones as the smartphone of choice to new employees.”

“If Apple has a legitimate interest in concerns over the availability of an encryption key … then that should be the problem to work on, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to not cooperate with legitimate law enforcement investigations,” Montgomery said.

The office issues 564 smartphones, 366 of which are iPhones, according to the news release. Under the new policy, the office would not issue iPhones to new employees or as upgrades or replacements for old devices.

Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a spokesman with the Phoenix Police Department, said in an email that police searches of electronic devices are now commonplace, and officers can obtain a warrant to examine a device in any scenario where they have probable cause to believe evidence of criminal conduct exists on it.

“The requirements and process for obtaining those warrants is the same as applying for a warrant for any other location where someone would expect a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Howard said.

However, issues arise when officers encounter encrypted devices that prevent them from accessing data without inputting a special key to decrypt the content. In the San Bernardino case, the only person who knew the encryption key was the shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, who died in a gun battle with police.

San Bernardino County, Farook’s employer, issued the phone to him for work purposes. The county paid for software that would have allowed it to unlock the phone, but the application never made it onto Farook’s device, according to reports by the Associated Press..

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in the December attack.

Montgomery said the roadblocks encryption poses aren’t unique to mass shooting investigations. He said people use phone encryption to shield criminal evidence in child pornography or drug trafficking investigations, and the inability to retrieve data because of security measures on iOS devices has hampered prosecutions by his office.

Montgomery said he believes Apple should develop a way to allow law enforcement to access devices while maintaining consumer privacy.

“If Apple wants to be known as the official smartphone provider to ISIS and Sinaloa cartel, that’s fine, but there are going to be consequences,” Montgomery said.

Ted Crews, an attorney at a local law firm, said he disagreed with Montgomery’s decision. He said asking Apple to create a master encryption key would allow other agencies to decrypt any iPhone, which would compromise users’ privacy.

“Right now, Apple’s got the best encryption available, and if the government makes them do what they’re asking them to do, that encryption is meaningless,” Crews said. “What the county attorney should be doing, is issuing a statement that all of their employees are going to be required to carry iPhones because they’re clearly the most secure.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the attorney’s office’s decision.

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