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It's Not Just The iPhone Law Enforcement Wants To Unlock


We've been hearing a lot about the tension right now between privacy rights and law enforcement's need for information to solve crimes. All of this stems from last year's massacre in San Bernardino. On one side, you have the FBI that wants access to the data on one of the shooter's iPhones. On the other side, you have Apple, which says if it develops the software needed to unlock that phone, it will set a dangerous precedent. We're going to hear one legal perspective on this issue now. Cyrus Vance Jr. is a Manhattan district attorney. He joins me on the line. Thanks so much for being with us.

CYRUS VANCE JR.: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: You believe Apple should comply with the court order from the federal government and build the technology needed to open this particular phone. Can you summarize your argument for me?

VANCE: Sure, Rachel. The thing that I believe folks need to understand is that criminals are using their smartphone devices to communicate with each other, to store information about their crimes on their phones. Our inability, as a result of Apple's engineering its phones to make it impossible for them to use a digital key to open a phone, has left us in a place where we are simply unable to perform our function to protect the public.

MARTIN: So you're saying this is bigger than just this one case, that this is a problem you run up against all the time.

VANCE: In fact, Rachel, it's a problem that affects us more than actually I believe it affects the federal government. We started tracking the number of iOS 8 devices that we cannot access as a result of Apple's decision in late 2014. And over that year-and-a-half time period, there are now 175 phones that we cannot access out of a universe of 670 phones that our cyber lab has evaluated. So it's about a quarter of the phones we haven't been able to get into. And...

MARTIN: And what does that mean for those cases? I mean, have you been able to circumvent this in the case and find other ways to prosecute?

VANCE: It varies. In some cases, we can't move at all. We can't establish liability or responsibility because we can't access the phone. In others, it's affecting our ability to gather all the evidence that's needed to make sure that we are making the right judgments. And I think it's very important for people to understand that a prosecutor's job is to investigate, get all the information and then make the right judgment as to whether or not we can go forward. It's also our responsibility to make sure that we are prosecuting the right people. And when we don't have access to digital devices, we don't have all the information that we need to make the best judgment as to how the case should be handled.

MARTIN: So how would this look in practice? I mean, what ideally do you want Apple to do? I mean...

VANCE: What I want to do is something very simple. At the end of 2014, Apple required warrants issued by judges to access evidence on phones that it manufactured. It was not a problem at the time. I honestly don't think it is a problem today. And I think Apple should be directed to be able to unlock its phones when there is a court order by an independent judge proving and demonstrating that there's relevant evidence on that phone necessary for an individual case. Secondly, I think that the United States Congress is going to have to step in here. The importance of accessing digital evidence in criminal cases, from terrorism to sex crimes, is very significant. I think also, Rachel, that from my perspective, this is also very much about corporate responsibility. Apple and Google are huge companies who own 96.7 percent of the worldwide smartphone market. We know communications exist on these phones, are being used by the criminals to perpetrate the crimes. And that's a fact. Given that that is a fact, I believe these companies have to acknowledge that and strike a balance between public safety and privacy that is not on one extreme or the other. Right now, they have independently struck a balance between privacy and public safety at that point on the spectrum where it coincides perfectly with their economic interests. We need to look at this with independent eyes. And I believe Congress ultimately is going to have to make the judgment call of where we draw that line.

MARTIN: Cyrus Vance Jr., Manhattan district attorney. Thanks so much for talking with us.

VANCE: Rachel, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 24, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous Web introduction to this story incorrectly identified Cyrus Vance Jr. as a Manhattan defense attorney. Vance is a district attorney.
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