Apple locked iPhone code blocks Italian murder probe

Police have been stymied in attempts to obtain code to unlock the iPhone of a woman murdered last July

The access code locking the iPhone 5 of an Italian murder victim is depriving police of information that might help them solve the crime, but Apple has so far resisted requests for help in unlocking the device, a Milan prosecutor confirmed Friday.

Nicoletta Figini, 55, was found dead in her apartment on the outskirts of Milan last July, her body bound with computer cord and strips of bed sheets and curtains. Police said she had been suffocated by the duct tape placed over her mouth.

The apartment was in disorder but the killer did not appear to have been motivated by theft, since numerous valuables had been left behind, including Figini's three mobile phones.

Two of the mobile phones were unlocked but did not contain information useful for the investigation, while a third device -- the iPhone -- was locked and investigators have so far been unable to gain access to its content.

"We have been having difficulty in gaining access to the information held on the device," Mauro Clerici, the prosecutor overseeing the investigation, said in a telephone interview. "There's a problem of compatibility between our legal systems. In Italy investigative searches are ordered by the prosecutor, while in the United States they have to be ordered by a judge."

Clerici said the Italian authorities might be able to get around the obstacle by asking an Italian preliminary inquiries judge to appoint a technical expert with a mandate to access the information on the iPhone, but that process can only be undertaken when a suspect has been identified and the Milan investigation is currently against "persons unknown."

Investigators have not been able to turn to hackers for assistance because forcing the iPhone passcode risks canceling the data held on the device, and even if the effort was successful, information obtained by illegal means could not subsequently be used in court, said Giuseppe Guastella, the journalist who first revealed the existence of the legal impasse in a report published Wednesday by the Corriere della Sera.

"Investigators already have Figini's emails and the schedule of phone calls made on the iPhone, but they are interested in recovering SMS messages and photographs that might help with the inquiry," Guastella said in a telephone interview.

Figini reportedly had an interest in sado-masochistic sexual practices, and investigators hope photographs stored on the locked device could help them solve the murder.

But as well as running up against Apple's privacy rules -- published reports say the company will only assist investigators when the case involves a missing person or a suicide risk -- the Italian investigation has also been thwarted by the implications of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment is intended to prevent unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires warrants to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. Not knowing what they might find on Figini's iPhone, Italian authorities have difficulty in satisfying the amendment's requirement that they provide a detailed description of "the persons or things to be seized."

"The case shows the need for internationally accepted legal rules," Guastella said. "If the device had been manufactured by an Italian company the authorities would already have succeeded in opening it by now."

Apple did not immediately answer a request for clarification of its privacy rules and for information on how it intended to respond to the Italian justice authorities' request for assistance.

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Tags smartphonesApplelegaloperating systemsiPhonesoftwareconsumer electronicsCriminalMac OS

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Philip Willan

IDG News Service
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