For years, law enforcement has had a love/hate relationship with Apple Inc. Six years ago, law enforcement agencies were holding Apple responsible for the high number of smartphone thefts and called out Apple to do something about it.
With iOS 7, Apple introduced a feature called Activation Lock which made it more difficult to use a stolen iPhone. New York police officers actively advocated for the use of iPhones as a result.
Law enforcement was displeased with Apple’s strong encryption when it came to the San Bernardino incident. Apple took a stand and refused to create a backdoor.
In 2017, Apple introduced the iPhone X with Face ID. In some ways, that biometric feature made it easier for police to unlock a suspect’s phone. It does not require the suspect to touch the right spot on the phone with the correct finger. It only requires the suspect to look at the phone. The iPhone XS and XS Max make it even easier because the sensor works even faster.
Motherboard has a report on why this is not good news for law enforcement.
“But Face ID can of course also work against law enforcement—too many failed attempts with the ‘wrong’ face can force the iPhone to request a potentially harder to obtain passcode instead. Taking advantage of legal differences in how passcodes are protected, US law enforcement have forced people to unlock their devices with not just their face but their fingerprints too. But still, in a set of presentation slides obtained by Motherboard this week, one company specialising in mobile forensics is telling investigators not to even look at phones with Face ID, because they might accidentally trigger this mechanism.”
Rather than thanking Apple for making their jobs a little easier, people who work on the front lines of law enforcement are now being warned to look away from iPhone X-style devices. That is because the same feature that makes it convenient for people to unlock their phones can make it easier to lock out someone else.
The situation is even worse because there are more ways to lock out Face ID if they are forced to surrender their iPhone. Holding either volume button with the Power button for a few seconds will disable Face ID until the password has been entered. This can be done while handing over the phone.