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Police 'mug' suspect to get into iPhone while he's using it

Commentary: Encryption be damned. British police created novel tactic to get past Apple's insistence on privacy and security. They grab the phone while it's being used.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Look behind you. That police officer might mug you.

Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Apple has a quaint belief in privacy.

CEO Tim Cook has described it as "an issue of morality."

This rather infuriates police forces who'd prefer to be able to trawl through everyone's cell phones in order to obtain evidence.

In the US, the matter came to a head last year when Apple refused to hack an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

In the UK, where surveillance is rather extensive, the police have come up with a novel way to get into a suspect's iPhone. Mug them.

Some would, at least, use that description for a tactic reported by the BBC. The case involved Gabriel Yew, who was suspected of being involved in the creation of fake credit cards that were used to buy expensive items in stores. He was also suspected of conducting all his business by iPhone.

So police decided that they would wait for him to use the phone and then "mug" him for it. If the phone is open and awake, all you have to do is keep it from going to sleep and you can extract whatever data you'd like.

Legal experts will decide just how far above the law this might be. In this case, the police decided that forcing Yew to use fingerprint authentication wasn't legal, but stealing it was.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman told me that as far as the police are concerned, there was nothing extraordinary about this event.

"It was just a way of timing the arrest, so that the phone would already be open," he said.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of, well, 1984 allows the police to seize evidence on arrest. Therefore, the police don't regard this as a mugging, but merely clever planning. The police didn't need a warrant, the spokesman told me, to search the phone.

This contrasts with the US, where the Supreme Court has ruled that police do need a warrant before going through your cell phone.

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The police say that they gained valuable information from Yew's iPhone and he was jailed last week for a five-and-a-half year term. Might this tactic, then, become popular for police forces in other countries?

Should you be an iPhone user and involved in nefarious practices, it's best to keep looking over your shoulder if you're using your phone.

That nice policeman might want to steal your phone.