The US government has been trying to pressure companies like Apple to create a backdoor in its smartphones to help law enforcement agencies access encrypted data when needed. Such a backdoor could help agencies gather crucial information about a detainee, which can then be used as evidence in a court of law. However, critics have argued that giving the government easy access to smartphone data defeats the entire purpose of encrypting it in the first place. Apple, among other companies, has refused to cooperate so far. But a recent report from Vice claims that the government has been doing a decent job of cracking smartphone encryption even without their help when it comes to most iPhones. Android smartphones, however, have been getting increasingly more difficult to crack.
The report cites statements from Detective Rex Kiser, who conducts digital forensic examinations for the Fort Worth Police Department. In his statement, Kiser said, “A year ago we couldn’t get into iPhones, but we could get into all the Androids. Now we can’t get into a lot of the Androids.” The report further reveals that Cellebrite — a company that government agencies hire to crack smartphones — already has a tool that can crack iPhone encryption all the way up to the iPhone X. The tool can successfully get investigators access to data such as GPS records, messages, call logs, contacts, or even data from specific apps like Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more, which can be used to prosecute criminals.
However, the same Cellebrite tool hasn’t seen much success with Android encryption on a variety of handsets. For instance, the tool wasn’t able to extract any social media, internet browsing, or GPS data from devices like the Google Pixel 2, which features a tamper-resistant hardware security module, and the Samsung Galaxy S9. And in the case of the Huawei P20 Pro, the software didn’t get access to anything at all. To this Kiser told Vice that, “Some of the newer operating systems are harder to get data from than others … I think a lot of these [phone] companies are just trying to make it harder for law enforcement to get data from these phones … under the guise of customer privacy.”
But the aforementioned information doesn’t mean your Android device is uncrackable. Even though Cellebrite’s tool doesn’t work on some Android devices, it doesn’t mean investigators can’t extract the data they need for an investigation. The process is just a bit more labor-intensive and takes more time. According to Vice’s sources, even brand new devices like the iPhone 11 Pro Max can be cracked, but the process isn’t as easy as hooking up the device to a cracking tool to get the job done. Nonetheless, the report still does suggest that some Android phones are more difficult to crack than iPhones, making them a safer alternative if security and privacy are major concerns.