TORONTO — Toronto police spent more than eight months continually trying to guess the password to unlock the laptop of Alek Minassian, the admitted driver during the 2018 Toronto van attack that killed 10 people.
In the face of “almost infinite” combinations of letters, numbers and symbols, the automated process had not been successful, according to police documents dated this May.
Toronto police say investigators were unable to crack the password and encryption on both Minassian’s Apple MacBook Pro laptop and the Asus cellphone he carried when arrested at the scene of the carnage from the April 23, 2018, attack.
Toronto police seized the laptop from the home Minassian shared with his parents in Richmond Hill, Ont., according to a police affidavit, sworn on May 13, 2019, and filed in court.
The cellphone has an added layer of encryption that appears to have been built by Minassian, who was completing a software development degree program at the time of the attack.
Minassian bought the laptop six months before the attack.
With the court’s authorization to search it, police found the laptop was “file vault encrypted” and requires a password to unlock it, wrote Christopher Sloan, the detective in charge with the Toronto police Technical Crimes Unit.
Investigators consulted with other law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police, as well as private security firms. No one could help, Sloan said.
Police also asked Apple Inc., the laptop’s manufacturer, for assistance.
“Apple has advised that it does not store device specific passwords related to their products,” Sloan said, “and is not aware of any other bypassing method. As such, Apple is either unable or unwilling to offer any assistance with unlocking this device.
“There does not appear to be a solution available.”
Investigators have turned to a labourious, automated entry of characters in the hopes of stumbling upon the right combination of letters, numbers or symbols.
“This process has been taking place for over eight months,” Sloan wrote in May.
Without someone telling them the password, Sloan said, it is “virtually impossible to predict how long it will take to bypass the password.” It was “highly unlikely” police will be able to examine the contents of the laptop prior to Minassian’s trial for 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, scheduled to begin next February.
As a result, police declined to return the laptop to the Minassians.
Further the phone has “several layers of encryption,” Sloan said, including “an additional layer of encryption that appears to have been added to the original operating system.
“Minassian took active steps to alter the entire (operating) system and manipulate and increase the security settings,” Sloan said.
The phone was turned over to a private security firm to try to bypass its security.
“Their efforts are continuing to date, to no avail,” Sloan wrote.
Their efforts are continuing to date, to no avail
Access to digital devices has become an increasingly difficult and important aspect of investigations as the use of digital equipment climbs. Increasingly, that involves police turning to private companies to carry out their investigations.
After a 2015 killing spree in San Bernardino, Calif., the Federal Bureau of Investigation was unable to access the contents of the iPhone of one of the shooters, Syed Farook. Agents were thwarted by the phone’s encryption software, sparking a high-profile fight between the FBI and Apple, the phone’s manufacturer.
Apple refused the FBI’s requests and even rebuffed a court order to help agents crack open the phone by designing a way to defeat its own security. That legal faceoff ended — without legal resolution — when the FBI announced it had cracked the encryption by paying a third party for a solution.
U.S. law enforcement agencies made more than 130,000 requests for digital evidence in 2017 to six of the largest tech companies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Oath (formerly Yahoo!), and Apple, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies released last year. When three large U.S. phone providers are included in the data — Verizon, AT&T and Comcast — the number of requests climbs to around 750,000.
The Toronto police affidavit about Minassian’s laptop and phone is included in pre-trial material filed in court. Postmedia, along with other news organizations won a court ruling allowing publication now, because Minassian’s case will be decided by a judge without a jury and because of the compelling public importance of the case.
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: AD_Humphreys