Privacy SOS

Manhattan DA wants you to think his office is starving for information, but they know more about you than ever before

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The New York Times today published a fear-mongering op-ed by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, warning that commercial encryption services offered by Apple and Google endanger society by protecting criminals from police and prosecutors.

He writes:

Between October and June, 74 iPhones running the iOS 8 operating system could not be accessed by investigators for the Manhattan district attorney’s office — despite judicial warrants to search the devices. The investigations that were disrupted include the attempted murder of three individuals, the repeated sexual abuse of a child, a continuing sex trafficking ring and numerous assaults and robberies.

Criminal defendants have caught on. Recently, a suspect in a Manhattan felony, speaking on a recorded jailhouse call, noted that “Apple and Google came out with these softwares” that the police cannot easily unlock.

Vance apparently doesn't see the irony in his concern trolling over the state's inability to access information about suspects by referencing a wiretapped conversation someone had in the panopticon that is New York's jail system. But this disconnect from reality is not a huge surprise, given that he penned an op-ed slamming encryption despite the fact that his office has been in communication with the notorious firm Hacking Team since at least 2013, when the malware specialists provided a product demonstration for the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

MuckRock reports:

As recently as this past May, Hacking Team and an assistant district attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office emailed back and forth about a potential software “solution.” Hacking Team sales staff fielded questions about jailbreaking iPhones remotely, and discussed among themselves about how high a price to quote.

Hacking Team hosted a spyware demo in September 2013 for Manhattan district attorney staff, and again in February 2015. When the assistant DA requested a price estimate, a Hacking Team operations manager suggested a starting ask of $3 million.

"If it's totally out of budget, we can come up with a special 'deal' for them and the usual accommodations," wrote Hacking Team’s Daniele Milan on an internal email thread about discussions with the DA.

The DA’s office confirmed that it has met with Hacking Team to review their products.

"In order to keep pace with rapid developments in the private sector, we invite groups to demo various emerging technologies," wrote Joan Vollero, Manhattan DA spokeswoman, in an emailed statement.

If they work as advertised, Hacking Team's products enable law enforcement and spies to outmanuever even the most secure encryption tools, by intercepting messages in plain text straight from a compromised device. The District Attorney's interest in obtaining these dangerous hacking tools doesn't at all square with his claim in the New York Times that "full-disk encryption significantly limits our capacity to investigate [] crimes and severely undermines our efficiency in the fight against terrorism."

The New York Police Department and Manhattan DA have access to hundreds of millions of dollars of high tech surveillance equipment, most likely including stingray cell phone interception devices. Cops and prosecutors in New York have access to more information about more New Yorkers than ever before. As the Hacking Team emails show, the information warfare deck is stacked heavily in their favor, no matter what they say in the pages of the New York Times.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.