The National Institute for Justice is seeking applications in 2016 for a grant program focused on “research and technology development leading to the introduction into practice of new, innovative means for: collecting digital evidence from mobile devices or large-scale computer networks, or for detecting human images.”
The research is meant to create solutions tailored for state and local law enforcement, according to the announcement.
Police departments have long used devices called Cellebrites to extract the contents of smartphones, a once straightforward process made complicated by Apple’s decision in 2014 to encrypt by default all iPhones running iOS 8 or later. (Cellebrite’s website boasts that it can unlock many devices running iOS 8, but doesn’t say it can break into the latest hardware models of the iPhone.) As long as those devices are protected by a password, law enforcement cannot decrypt information on the phones unless they can brute force hack them open. The NIJ grant asking for “innovative means for collecting digital evidence from mobile devices” may be oriented toward making brute force solutions available to police departments that don’t have the code-cracking resources of say, the NSA.
As long as police departments obtain warrants to open cell phones and examine their contents, as the Supreme Court last year held they must subsequent to arrest, this type of research doesn’t raise new concerns.
But it’s very troubling to see NIJ invest taxpayer funds towards helping police departments figure out how to extract information from “large scale computer networks.” It’s difficult to imagine what routine law enforcement ends might be served by helping police become more like the NSA.
Meanwhile, the FBI is quietly expanding its hacking capabilities.