Almost a year after Brittney Mills was shot dead in the doorway of her Baton Rouge, Louisiana home, the iPhone that might reveal who pulled the trigger languishes on an evidence shelf.
Police think the pregnant mother’s smartphone could hold texts or diary entries revealing who killed her. But the data remains cloaked by encryption, guarded by an unknown pass code and unreachable by investigators.
The prospect of hidden information tantalizes the victim’s family. In an echo of the better-known cases surrounding iPhones used by a terrorist in San Bernardino, California, and a drug dealer in Brooklyn, Brittney Mills’ survivors say device maker Apple hasn’t done enough to find the killer.
“In so many words, they refused to help us,” said Tia Mills, sister of 29-year-old Brittney. “I was really astonished about that.”
The slaying offers one example from hundreds nationwide where families and police are grappling with the decision by smartphone manufactures such as Apple to add encryption that law enforcement can’t crack, even with a warrant. Unlike the Brooklyn and California cases where the US Justice Department has gone to bat for investigators, local police and crime victims say they are largely left to fend for themselves.
“This is not just a terrorist issue. We’re everyday people,” Tia Mills said in an interview. “We don’t have muscle to fight Apple. We don’t have money to go through the courts. We just want what’s fair. And what’s fair is allowing us to have access to the phone.”
She and her mother and brother came to Washington March 1 to attend a House Judiciary Committee hearing on smartphone encryption. The family members weren’t asked to testify but stood up when introduced by their congressman, Rep. Cedric Richmond.
The Democrat also arranged a meeting in his House office between representatives of Apple and the prosecutor in the case.
“They said they’d speak with engineers” about ways to get the phone’s data, said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. “There was no promise, no guarantee.”
The Mills family is snared by the same privacy barrier confronting the FBI, which won a court order asking Apple to help deactivate security features of an iPhone used by a shooter in the December attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple has refused, saying to do so would make all iPhone users less secure from government and criminal encroachment on data that can include bank records, family photos and intimate communications.
Asked about the Mills case, Apple spokesman Fred Sainz referred a reporter to a statement by Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, who said the FBI’s demand in the San Bernardino case is a “chilling” attack on civil liberties.
Cook described the request as an “unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.” He’s gained backing from tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Apple’s software has left criminal investigations hobbled around the country, law-enforcement groups say. The debate is “as real as a killer gone free, as real as a pedophile planning for his next prey,” the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys Inc. said in a filing to the court weighing the FBI’s request in the San Bernardino case.
In New York City alone, authorities have seized 205 iPhones that hold information that prosecutors haven’t been able to search, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. testified before the House committee.
“Criminals understand that this new operating system provides them with a cloak of secrecy,” Vance said. “And they are, ladies and gentlemen, quite literally, laughing at us.”
Apple complied with requests for encrypted information before introducing its latest major software update in 2014, Vance told lawmakers. Mills’ phone has the updated software.
“Default device encryption has had a profound impact on my office and otherslike it,” Vance said.
According to a report assembled by Vance’s office, one inmate being held in New York’s Rikers Island called Apple’s iOS8 operating system, which offers encryption by default, a “gift from God.” The inmate said Vance was “beefing with Apple” and added, “if our phones is running on this iOS8 software, they can’t open my phone.”
At the March 1 hearing, Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell told lawmakers, “We do work cooperatively” with law enforcement. The company says it receives about 10,000 requests a year from law enforcement agencies.
“We have a team of dedicated professionals that are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to assist law enforcement,” Sewell told lawmakers. Apple engineers were made available to advise the FBI on “investigative alternatives” following the San Bernardino attack, he said.
Apple’s policy calls for handing over content in the so-called iCloud, a storage site that lets phone users back up information including emails and text messages, when presented with a warrant signed by a judge.
Apple says it provides information to law enforcement 80 percent of the time it’s requested. That figure includes requests to help find stolen phones.
In cases where access is being sought to a customer’s data, the company says it disclosed content in only 27 percent of the cases in the US, usually by handing over information about an iCloud account, which it did in the Mills case. It says it does so only when legally compelled, and notifies customers when it’s allowed to do so. Apple delivers “the narrowest set of information possible,” according to its website.
The Baton Rouge phone apparently hadn’t recently copied its data to the iCloud. Information from it was old, said Moore, the prosecutor. “There’s a three-month period of time that we had no information,” he said.
A September search warrant to Apple for information from the phone itself yielded a short email. “Since the device is running iOS version 8 or a later version, the iOS extraction cannot be completed,” said the email.
In the San Bernardino case, the company has said it shouldn’t be required to alter its software to help the FBI hack the device. A hearing is set for March 22 before US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym.
Meanwhile, the killing of Brittney Mills goes unsolved.
Mills was about eight months pregnant on April 24 when she answered the door and somebody asked to use her car. She refused and was shot several times, DA Moore said in a letter to senators.
She died during surgery; doctors delivered the child, Brenton, who died a week later. A resident of the house heard what went on at the front door, but didn’t see the assailant, according to the letter.
Police tried guessing the pass code of the 5s iPhone a few times then stopped, aware that a security feature of the iPhone wipes out data after too many password guesses, Moore said.
Now, the family waits.
“I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed,” said Tia Mills, 33, the victim’s sister. “I’m disappointed because I’m sure that if it were to happen to one of their family members, someone that they hold near and dear, that they would do whatever it took.”