Apple brags about how its iPhones protect your privacy because of strong encryption built into its systems.
But according to a report from Upturn, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that studies how law enforcement uses technology, a product exists that allows investigators to break into your phone anyway.
Among the city police departments that purchased it — Dallas.
The New York Times first reported that Upturn learned through open records requests that some police departments can essentially rent the technology on an as-needed basis. Other police departments may buy the system in total.
The Dallas Police Department spent $150,000 to buy the Cellebrite technology, records show.
Logs from the Dallas police showed that murder and drug investigations are the top two reasons DPD uses the technology, Upturn reported.
That sounds well and good, but Upturn says this represents a dangerous expansion of police powers that most mobile phone owners don’t realize.
According to legal standards, without a phone owner’s consent, police can’t search a phone without a warrant.
The Watchdog contacted Dallas police to ask about its policies for data extraction, but police officials declined to comment.
If you’re concerned about phone privacy and worry about non-police hackers using technology to break into your phone, consider switching your 4-digit passcode to a 6-digit one. And don’t use something obvious like your birth date or birth year.
More on property title theft
Some readers were skeptical of The Watchdog’s recent report looking at property title theft. I reported how some Texas counties offer a free warning service if someone tampers with your property title to take illegal ownership.
One key way it happens: Someone steals or fabricates a notary seal to make the transfer deeds look authentic.
Notary public Sue Beck of Frisco tells me it happened to her. Her stamp imprint was stolen off a legally filed document and was used to fraudulently sell a home.
She learned about it in a call from a criminal investigator. “The person didn’t even try to match my signature,” she says.
“A year later, the victim is still trying to get their home back,” she says. “Anybody can pull up a copy of a deed from the county records website and take a screen shot of a notary stamp, crop it and use it fraudulently. I’m surprised it isn’t done more often.”
That’s why The Watchdog originally brought this to your attention.
Driver’s license hack?
A couple of people who subscribe to identity theft protection services said they were recently notified that their Texas driver’s license may have been compromised in a data breach.
I checked with the Texas Department of Public Safety, whose spokesperson tells me no such data theft occurred.
But I want you to remember a couple of things. The first is that your name, address, driver’s license number and date of birth are already easily and legally available on websites such as PublicData.com.
The second is that I’ve previously reported how Texas driver’s license information is not allowed to be sold to marketers who use the info to sell. But the state government makes millions of dollars every year selling these records to a third-party who then can go ahead and sell to the marketers.
New property tax law confusion
The Watchdog continues to monitor the implementation of the state’s new property tax reforms.
Keith S. wrote to me that he went into his property value hearing to protest, but when he walked out the value of his house was increased by around $50,000.
He researched the new law and found my lengthy summary of it that included what I labeled the “no backstabbing” rule.
An appraisal review board cannot raise the appraised value of a property of someone who has come in for a protest hearing.
He looked at the new law but couldn’t find the relevant portion and asked for help.
The language in the law seems clear: “The board may not determine the appraised value of the property that is the subject of a protest to be an amount greater than the appraised value of the property as shown in the appraisal records submitted to the board by the chief appraiser… except as requested and agreed to by the property owner.”
The “no backstabbing” rule didn’t work for this property owner. And that’s completely unfair.
Did this happen to anybody else?
NFL Network and U-verse
Bill Taylor of McKinney knows The Watchdog loves tales of irony. And it sure doesn’t hurt if they involve AT&T.
His beef is that he subscribes to AT&T’s U-verse television service, which used to carry the NFL Network but no longer does.
“I don’t understand why it’s not available on U-verse,” he writes.
I forwarded his question to AT&T in my monthly report of consumer complaints. AT&T spokesperson Jim Kimberly explains in a follow-up: “We contacted William Taylor and explained that the NFL Network pulled its channel from our U-verse lineup in 2019 during contract negotiations.”
As for the irony, Taylor says: “I can’t imagine AT&T has their name on the Cowboys’ stadium but does not show the NFL Network.”