Prosecutors Say They Are Hacking Over 100 Phones Confiscated At US Inauguration Protests

Prosecutors Say They Are Hacking Over 100 Phones Confiscated At US Inauguration Protests

The Trump inauguration is mostly remembered for the White House’s hilarious attempt to lie about attendance numbers and a Nazi getting punched. But there was also that situation where hundreds of people were arrested and slapped with rioting charges. Now, prosecutors want to go through over 100 locked phones and they appear to believe they can.

Photo: Getty

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On January 20, protests turned into destruction in isolated areas of Washington DC, and police indiscriminately rounded up 230 people including six journalists. Felony charges were filed that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in gaol or a fine of up to $US25,000 ($32,751). Outrage has followed over the decision to charge so many people with such an intense crime. Not only were bystanders and legal observers caught up in the chaos, but most of the people who were destroying property were wearing the masked uniform of the black bloc. That makes it particularly difficult to identify who did what.

Since then, charges have been dropped for 16 people but the rest are still on the hook. According to court papers filed on Wednesday, prosecutors say they are in the process of extracting data from the mobile phones of “100 indicted and other un-indicted arrestees in connection with this matter”.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons. Putting aside the possible violations of the defendant’s privacy for a moment, prosecutors are breaking into devices of people who aren’t even under indictment. Considering that the papers only acknowledge 230 arrests that day, it seems safe to assume that the phones from “un-indicted arrestees” would belong to some of the 16 people who had their charges dropped. Meaning journalists and legal observers. There could be a lot of sensitive information in those phones that would be entirely unrelated to this case.

What’s most puzzling is how they are getting into these locked phones. One passage in the filings reads:

The government is in the process of extracting data from the Rioter Cell Phones pursuant to lawfully issued search warrants, and expects to be in a position to produce all of the data from the searched Rioter Cell Phones in the next several weeks. (All of the Rioter Cell Phones were locked, which requires more time-sensitive efforts to try to obtain the data)

Apple very publicly fought the FBI last year over its efforts to compel them to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. The feds allegedly paid over $US1.3 million ($1.7 million) to hackers for breaking into the phone. Anonymous sources later told Reuters that the FBI would be able to duplicate the hack but only on phones with the exact same specifications. It seems unlikely that the law enforcement will shell out that kind of cash for over 100 devices for a case involving $US100,000 ($131,000) in property damage.

Maybe they’re all Android phones? That OS is generally understood to be less secure than an iPhone. But still, we’re talking about a lot of devices here.

The Verge suggests that if we’re talking about Touch ID, “Law enforcement could use a warrant to compel someone to unlock the phone, or an advanced 3D-printed mould made using available fingerprint data from a government database.” This also seems unlikely because Touch ID requires a password after 24 hours.

While prosecutors are conducting this mystery hack, defendants are arguing that the indictments aren’t specific enough in naming acts committed by particular individuals and the charges should be dismissed.

A lot of people broke the law on inauguration day and they should be punished. But this trial process is a circus that’s doing damage to a system that’s significantly more valuable than a flaming limo.

[Department of Justice, Buzzfeed, The Verge]