Unlocking iPhones crucial in Unnao, Chinmayanand cases
Court, investigating agency seek access to information from Apple which resists parting with user data.
The Unnao case accused, Kuldeep Sengar, and Chimayanand used iPhones, and the court and the investigating agency respectively want access to the information that their smartphones can provide.
While Sengar’s location history, if provided by Apple, may establish his presence at the crime spot in Unnao’s Makhi village or provide him with an alibi, unlocking Chinmayanand’s iPhone can help Uttar Pradesh Police get hold of the original WhatsApp message which was reportedly sent to him with an extortion demand of Rs 5 crore, allegedly on the woman’s prodding.
Apple, however, has stoutly defended data privacy of its users in many cases and resisted calls for providing access to secured communication or information of its customers and iPhones to third-party agencies, including government and law enforcement agencies.
In 2016, it had rebuffed repeated requests by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to help unlock the smartphone belonging to a terrorist in a mass shooting case in San Bernardino, California. Eventually, the matter was resolved when the US government said that it had found a third party that was able to unlock the iPhone.
People aware of the way Apple deals with such cases told ET that the iPhone maker “does not have a one-size-fits-all strategy” and in the past it had given out information on customer data to government agencies depending on the request.
In 2018, for instance, Indian government agencies made 185 requests to Apple for various kinds of customer data and information, and Apple did comply in 119 such cases, as per the Apple transparency reports for the year.
This may prove vital in Sengar and Chinmayanand’s cases.
Apple did not respond to ET’s queries in this regard.
Chinmayanand was in the habit of deleting all Whatsapp chats daily from his iPhone, which included the extortion message of Rs 5 crore that he had received on August 22, a senior official told ET.
The forensic science laboratory (FSL) in UP failed to recover such data from his iPhone but provided the Special Investigation Team (SIT) with “mirror images” of the Android phones of the woman and her friends who have been charged with extortion.
The SIT has now sent this iPhone to Central FSL in Gandhinagar, in a bid to retrieve the crucial WhatsApp message, said officials. Apple may be approached if the CFSL, too, is unable to crack the iPhone, they said.
So far, the SIT only has a screenshot of the alleged extortion message, with the date and the time when it was sent, obtained from the phone of Chinmayanand’s lawyer, Om Singh. The ex-MP is said to have sent this screenshot to his lawyer.
While the woman, a law student, has accused Chinmayanand of rape, the former Union minister filed a counter case against the woman alleging extortion, which led to the woman being jailed.
In the Unnao case, Sengar has been claiming that he was not at his house in Makhi village in 2017 when the alleged rape took place at his house as per the victim’s testimony. He has cited his call detail records to claim that he was almost 50 km away from the spot. The trial court in Delhi, where the case was shifted from Unnao earlier, asked Apple last Friday to provide the location history of Sengar’s phone for June 4, 2017, by October 9. The counsel for Apple India Pvt Ltd told the court on Friday that the company “needed to seek instructions regarding the availability of the data because as of now it is not known whether the data is stored, and if yes, where and whether it was available if it was stored at all”. Further, the counsel said, the company had yet to take a decision on the format in which the data, if available, could be supplied to the trial court.
“This is a case of providing access to personal data pursuant to court orders which is distinct from government requests. Usually, such requests are complied with by most online service providers in India and abroad,” said Apar Gupta, lawyer and executive director of the digital advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation.
However, Gupta said that if the direction includes a requirement for a device manufacturer to take active steps to unlock the device by creating a vulnerability or decrypting a user’s private key, then the manufacturer may resist such a request.
In 2018, India made 76 requests to Apple to provide data on customer data related to the serial number or IMEI number of an iPhone, of which only 53% requests were approved and data provided. Data was however provided in more than 70% of the 62 requests pertaining to financial identifiers, such as credit cards or gift cards. In cases where government agencies sought customer data in an emergency matter, Apple complied with 82% of the 11 requests.
In matters of specific account information, 36 requests were made in 2018 where government agencies, including law enforcement, sought information regarding customers’ Apple ID accounts, such as account holder name, address and account connections to Apple services, besides content data such as photos, email, iOS device backups, contacts or calendars, as per Apple’s transparency report. Eight requests were challenged or rejected, while in 25 cases only non-content data was provided.