In a New York Times opinion column today, the Manhattan district attorney and leading prosecutors from three other countries cite an Evanston murder case as an argument for overturning new privacy protection systems on smartphones.

Cyrus Vance Jr. and his counterparts from London, Paris and Spain, say that investigators here have been thwarted in their efforts to find the killer of Ray C. Owens because two smartphones found by his body were passcode protected, making it impossible for Apple or Google to provide unencrypted versions of the data the phones contained in response to a court order.

Owens, 27, a Chicago resident with relatives in Evanston, was shot to death June 9 in an alley off Emerson Street, becoming Evanston first, and so far only, homicide victim of the year. Police say they are seeking a lone gunman in the shooting.

Relatives say Owens had six children and was trying to turn his life around while out on parole following a drug conviction.

Privacy rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have supported development of the encryption technologies, and tech websites explain how phone owners can enable the security measure in just a minute.

But it seems that if you don’t let someone you trust know your passcode, you could end up making it harder for the police to figure out who killed you, in the unlikely event you end up a homicide victim.

Original column: When phone encryption blocks justice.


Update 5:40 a.m. 8/12/15: Evanston Police Cmdr. Joseph Dugan says the department still has two detectives working on the Owens case. He says police have learned that Owens sent and received several text messages in the hours before he was killed, but haven’t been able to determine the content of those messages.

Meanwhile, another report has disputed several of the claims made by the prosecutors in their New York Times opinion piece.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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