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At a secret lab in Manhattan, technicians spend all day trying to break into iPhones

Published Jan 21st, 2020 4:15PM EST
iPhone encryption
Image: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

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About a mile away from the Apple Store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, technicians under the auspices of Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. spend all day inside a $10 million lab focused on one task: Trying to break into iPhones.Phones like the one that belonged to E’Dena Hines, Morgan Freeman’s 33-year-old granddaughter who was stabbed to death in 2015 and whose boyfriend was convicted of her murder thanks to a video found on E’Dena’s phone. It was discovered on the phone, once they’d gotten inside, by the technicians at this first-of-its-kind lab that opened a little more than two years ago. A lab that stands as a physical manifestation of a larger fight, between the federal government and Apple over how far the iPhone maker should be allowed to go to encrypt and secure its popular handsets from prying eyes — be they from a friend, a jealous lover, a stranger, or even Uncle Sam.

The Manhattan lab is the first of its kind, in the sense that this is the first time such a cyber lab has opened within a local prosecutor’s office in the US. The lab recently allowed a Fast Company reporter inside to get a look at the space, which encompasses 2,200 square feet, includes a room shielded from radio frequencies — and, on this particular day that a reporter visited, dozens of iPhones and iPads against one wall. The displays of some were cracked, others burned. What they all have in common: Each was recovered from a crime scene. And the technicians at the lab, if they had their way, would love to get a look inside them all.

Sometimes, they succeed — as the phone that belonged to Morgan Freeman’s granddaughter reveals. And it’s not always to obtain evidence for a conviction. Vance told FastCo that the lab’s work has also, in at least 16 instances, gathered evidence from cracked phones that has exonerated suspects. That’s thanks to everything from ex-military professionals working in the lab to the lab’s robot that can extract a memory chip from a phone and the supercomputer that’s able to generate 26 million randomized passcodes every single second.

“You entrust us with this responsibility to protect the public,” Vance told the magazine, whose full profile of the lab deserves a read. “At the same time, (the tech companies) have taken away one of our best sources of information. Just because they say so … That’s not their call.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.