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Rochester police could get iPhone cracking tool

May 11, 2020

Rochester police are adding a new iPhone cracking tool to their arsenal that has sparked privacy concerns around the country.

The tool is called GrayKey, a small, gray box that enables its users to unlock passcodes in the most up-to-date iOS devices, giving law enforcement access to personal files as part of an investigation.

City Council is set to vote Tuesday on allocating $19,000 for a one-year GrayKey contract.

The Rochester Police Department would be at least the second law enforcement agency in Monroe County to use GrayKey. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office also has a subscription to the tool, which it shares with suburban police, according to RPD Deputy Chief Mark Simmons.

The GrayKey legislation, submitted by Mayor Lovely Warren, specifically points to the tool being used to solve violent crimes and murders. In a City Council committee meeting last week, however, Simmons said the tool could be used in any felony investigation.

“It’s really limited to felony crimes, and most felony crimes are violent crimes, with the exception of drugs and burglaries,” Simmons said. “For the most part, it’s going to be used from our major crimes unit, which deals with serious assaults and homicides.”

Simmons emphasized that GrayKey can't be used at the whim of an officer. As per a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, police are required to get a warrant before using GrayKey or similar phone-hacking tools.

“This can’t be used for a street-stop situation,” Simmons said. “It’s more for a long-term felony case where this will be used.”

Iman Abid, director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed concern about how the tool could be used. She also said the legislation does not go into enough specifics about when, where, and how a warrant for GrayKey could be sought, or where private data will be stored after being accessed.

Abid said that before City Council votes on a contract for such a device, there should be some sort of comment period. Officials should explain what the technology does, how it will be used, and where any information accessed by police officers will be stored, she said.

“We’re in a place right now where our phones contain all of the personal information we have on ourselves,” Abid said. “It’s not just about accessing a piece of information; it’s accessing someone’s entire life.”

Francis Camp, an RPD spokesperson and investigator, likened GrayKey to any device police might use to gain access to a locked vehicle or a residence upon execution of a search warrant.

“As vehicle locks become more advanced and doors become more sturdy, different versions of a lockout tool and a ramming tool need to be utilized to gain entry,” Camp said.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gfanelli@rochester-citynews.com.