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#Encrochat News: Police forces are buying hacking software used to hack & unlock mobile phones

Powerful software capable of hacking and unlocking devices is being used increasingly by police and public bodies but campaigners warn guidelines around deployment of “intrusive” data extraction remains opaque.

An analysis of contract records by i shows more than a dozen UK police forces, alongside the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, have signed deals to use software and devices which are marketed as being capable of cracking the passcode security function on both iPhones and Androids within minutes.

Once unlocked, investigators are able to access and download encrypted and unencrypted data kept on a phone, including passwords and message transcripts. The American makers of GrayKey, one of the most widely-used phone unlocking tools whose users include the Metropolitan Police, insist their product will provide information from a device within an hour in nearly half of all cases.

A GrayKey licence has also been purchased by Thurrock Borough Council at a cost of £365,000 as part of its role hosting the National Investigation Service (Natis), a little-known police body responsible for investigating serious organised crime and corruption targeting the public sector. The council said the licence was for use by Natis officers based within its offices.

A growing number of public bodies are showing an interest in the ability to extract data from mobile phones either with or without the permission of their owners.

Records seen by i show licences for GrayKey worth a cumulative total of £548,000 have been bought by nine police forces, including the Met, Greater Manchester Police, West Midlands Police and British Transport Police, as well as the Financial Conduct Authority. Contracts worth about £1.9m for a second downloading tool made by Israeli company Cellebrite have also been bought in the last four years by the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Department of Transport and the Competitions and Markets Authority, as well as seven police forces.

Both GrayKey and Cellebrite, which had previously been criticised for selling its phone cracking software to repressive regimes, including China, but insist all such links have now been severed, state that their products are developed to fully comply with all local legislation and sold to public or law enforcement bodies. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the companies, who claim their technology can access even the most secure mainstream phones, including the latest iPhones.

The increased use of hacking tools underlines both the importance of smartphones in detecting crime and the now routine nature of investigators needing to access and download mobiles belonging to suspects, as well as victims and witnesses. Data extracted from fitness apps on mobile phones has helped to secure several murder convictions around the world by locating suspects and specifying their activity, in one helping German police to pinpoint when a killer was carrying the body of his victim down a flight of stairs.

But the ability to rapidly obtain vital evidence or data such as messaging transcripts, passwords and images has brought with it a raft of new problems for police forces and investigators when it comes to procedure and the sheer quantity of information being obtained.

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