Home / National News / FBI's Help in Arkansas iPhone Case Spotlights Local Law Enforcement Frustration


(NEW YORK) — Law enforcement officials in Arkansas may be getting an assist from the FBI to help unlock an iPhone and an iPod belonging two teenage murder suspects, days after federal officials said they successfully cracked an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters and no longer needed Apple’s help.

The development is putting a spotlight on the number of iPhones that local law enforcement officials around the United States say they are unable to unlock due to Apple’s encryption, which is designed to protect consumer privacy.

Hunter Drexler Case

The trial of Hunter Drexler, 18, was postponed until June so prosecutors could ask the FBI for help. Faulkner County prosecutor Cody Hiland told the Associated Press the FBI agreed Wednesday afternoon to assist in unlocking the devices, following a request from his office and the Conway Police Department. A spokesperson for the Little Rock FBI office said “no comment” when asked whether officials were assisting.

“We have reason to believe we have relevant, very important evidence on the device that we could use at the trail,” Hiland told ABC’s Little Rock affiliate KATV.

Drexler, 18, and Justin Staton, 15, are accused of killing Robert and Patricia Cogdell, who were Staton’s grandparents, according to a police report. Both teens have both pleaded not guilty to charges of capital murder, aggravated robbery and various other charges.

“I think you have seen in the context of the Apple San Bernardino case, local law enforcement officials are saying, ‘This is a problem, we don’t have access to these phones,” Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the University of Buffalo who studies encryption and cyber law told ABC News. “In a sense, the Arkansas case shows local officials really want to access these phones in cases of criminal prosecution.”

Drexler’s attorney, Patrick Benca,told ABC News he was “not concerned about anything being on that phone.” Gina Reynolds, Staton’s public defender, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case spotlights the frustrating issue law enforcement officials say they have faced when it comes to trying to access an encrypted iPhone to gain evidence in a case.

The FBI had called on Apple last month to help get into the iPhone of Syed Farook, who, along with wife Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 and injured 22 at a holiday party in December. That order was dismissed on Monday after the FBI said it had successfully accessed data on the iPhone with the help of an unnamed third party.

Manhattan DA’s Office

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said at a news conference last month his office has 175 iPhones it can’t open because of encryption. The 175 phones his office is unable to unlock cover a wide range of cases, including homicide, attempted murder and sex abuse cases, Vance said.

“This has become, ladies and gentlemen, the wild west of technology,” he said. “It is very difficult to explain to a victim of a crime … that we cannot get the evidence that may identify the individual who may have committed the crime.”

The third party who helped the FBI access the San Bernardino shooter’s phone and the method used has not been disclosed by officials.

Bartholomew said he believes the reported cooperation in the Arkansas case could be the first of many cases where the FBI may choose to assist local law enforcement officials.

“My sense is that they will use this workaround in the short term as much as they can and then it will be disclosed by them intentionally after they have extracted as much value as they can, or it will come to the surface in another way,” Bartholomew said.

Apple has objected to building a backdoor into the iPhone over concerns it could put the private information of millions of customers at risk and set a “dangerous precedent.”

“We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated,” a statement issued by the company Monday night said.

Brooklyn Drug Case

The legal precedent authorities were hoping to set didn’t happen, essentially punting the issue down the line for future cases that may arise. A Brooklyn drug case with a locked iPhone may be one to watch in the future.

If the Justice Department decides to continue with its bid to compel Apple for help unlocking the phone, it is possible Apple could push the government to reveal its method for getting into the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.

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