Fredericton police to buy cellphone-cracking tool to use in investigations

Fredericton police will acquire a device that will enable them to bypass any passwords to gain access to data on cellphones as part of investigations. (CBC - image credit)
Fredericton police will acquire a device that will enable them to bypass any passwords to gain access to data on cellphones as part of investigations. (CBC - image credit)

The Fredericton Police Force is buying a tool that would allow officers to get around cellphone passwords to access the data contained in them.

Councillors  voted Monday to let the force spend $31,000 on Graykey, but before officers can use the technology to gain access to a locked phone, they'd first need to obtain a warrant from a judge, said Coun. Steve Hicks, chair of the city's public safety committee.

"They [would] just not randomly go up to anyone and take their cellphone," Hicks said in an interview after the meeting.

"It would it would be through an investigation and they'd have to have probable cause to get that cellphone and be able to go through the information."

Fredericton Coun. Steven Hicks says he and residents want to know from the province when work on the Marysville Bridge will finally be finished.
Fredericton Coun. Steven Hicks says he and residents want to know from the province when work on the Marysville Bridge will finally be finished.

Fredericton Coun. Steven Hicks, chair of the public safety committee, says he has no privacy concerns with the use of the technology by police. (Aidan Cox/CBC)

Magnetic Forensics, the company that makes Graykey, describes itself on its website as "a global leader in digital investigations," with offices in Waterloo, Ont., Ottawa, the United States and Singapore.

The company claims "Graykey unlocks actionable intelligence so you can solve cases faster, reduce crime within your community, and maximize your mobile forensics investment.

"Access is the cornerstone of digital forensics. Use Graykey to consistently unlock leading iOS and Android devices to help you get the evidence you need."

Little information presented publicly

Council voted on request to purchase the tool after a closed-door council-in-committee meeting, where it was discussed.

During the regular public meeting, the request was one of 11 items included in a consent agenda that was voted on with no discussion by councillors.

The city's online agenda package did not include any details about the new tool, including the cost, other than to say it will allow the police force "to gather important evidence in a timely and efficient manner greatly improving the overall quality of the investigation."

Speaking after Monday's meeting, police Chief Martin Gaudet said the tool was necessary, as cellphones have become crucial pieces in police investigations.

"In many ways, cellphones have replaced the filing cabinets and photo albums of criminals and provide a wealth of information on the activities of users," Gaudet said.

"So police are using cellphones more and more as evidence in investigations, so this tool will assist officers in acquiring, reviewing, and analyzing video evidence. This will make significant evidence available to us."

Fredericton police chief Martin Gaudet said it was a difficult day for his force as they marked the five-year anniversary of the 2018 shooting that killed two of his officers.
Fredericton police chief Martin Gaudet said it was a difficult day for his force as they marked the five-year anniversary of the 2018 shooting that killed two of his officers.

Police Chief Martin Gaudet says the Fredericton force needs the new tool because cellphones have become crucial in the gathering of evidence during investigations. (Sam Farley/CBC News)

In a city administrative report shared with councillors and with CBC News, city staff told counciil that while old cellphones had no such thing as a "lock," today's cellphones are "virtually uncrackable," making access to the device in a timely fashion a formidable challenge for police.

As it stands, Fredericton police have to go to the RCMP to gain access to locked cellphones, a process that can take up to 18 months, the report says.

"This often results in lost or unusable evidence that could have been used on the file," says the staff report.

"Having the Magnet Forensics Grey Key system will allow FPF officers to gather important evidence in a timely and efficient manner, greatly improving the overall quality of investigations."

Hicks said he's pleased the police force is acquiring the technology, adding he has no privacy concerns when it comes to its use.

"No one wants to go about just getting personal information on people," he said.

"[Police] want to make sure people are safe, and if this is one of the means they can utilize to make that happen, that's a good thing."