Tech industry must help bring ‘dark’ data to light

Technology giants Apple and Google are doing their best to protect their users' private information.

This is a good thing for, say, business people who need to make their work mobile. They can access their data at any time from anywhere simply by entering the passwords they establish. Meanwhile, they can be confident that the private information stored on their personal devices is secure thanks to new operating systems which automatically buries that data beneath layers of encryption code.

That data is so secure even Apple and Google can't get to it.

But what happens if the user is raped and murdered? What happens if the data was so closely guarded that the passwords to their mobile devices and laptops went with them to the grave?

And what if the face of the last person to see them alive — maybe even their killer — is among those pieces of information lost in algorithm?

In the interest of preserving their customers' privacy, Apple and Google chose purposely not to create a "back door" to the secured information. With that decision, potential evidence in criminal investigations has been sequestered from prosecutors.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly and the nation's other prosecutors call that "going dark," and it's been a hurdle since 2014 when Apple and Google rolled out new operating systems.

Photos and videos depicting child sexual abuse, texts between sex traffickers and their customers, interactions between crime victims and their assailants — all are potential pieces of evidence that no court order or search warrant can bring to light.

BND reporters Beth Hundsdorfer and George Pawlaczyk reported last February through their series "Violations of Trust" that in St. Clair County alone, 70 percent of 6,744 felony sex crime cases never made it to a courtroom, even though victims were able to identify their attackers 95 percent of the time.

What information could be taken from the smart phones of either the victim or the perpetrator that would help improve those dismal prosecution rates?

As the new president of the Illinois State's Attorney Association, Kelly is working with his colleagues to address this lack of access. They want simply for personal data that is stored on a digital devices to be as available to them as anything that is stored on a CD or even in a file cabinet.

Certainly, the brilliant minds in Silicon Valley that brought us encryption can find a technological solution that balances privacy and safety. Federal regulators and technology industry leaders must see that they do.