SALISBURY, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — On Monday, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted to approve funding for software that would allow the sheriff’s office to crack into password-protected phones. 

Rowan County investigators say they have already been using this software, called GrayKey, for about six months through a grant given to them by an anti-sex traffic nonprofit called Operation Underground Railroad. They say they’ve already used it on about 50 phones. 

Operation Underground Railroad decided to split the next round of funding with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office 50/50, which means the department needed to get approval from the Board of Commissioners to fund the other half.  

GrayKey, created by a company called Grayshift, is a forensic access tool that opens locked iPhones. RCSO Capt. David Earnhardt described it as a small box that plugs into the smartphone.

“It’s basically phones that came in, had passwords on it, the bad guy wouldn’t tell us what the password is, so we plug it into this machine and it cracks it,” he told commissioners Sept. 18. 

Sheriff Travis Allen said that cell phones have become the key to solving crimes, but that didn’t stop Chairman Greg Edds from expressing concerns about possible privacy violations. 

“What are the safeguards on this?” he asked. “Folks were a little worried about, is this going to violate folks’ constitutional rights?” 

Sheriff Travis Allen said the new plan would only give them the ability to unlock 50 phones, so the department would have to use it only on the most crucial cases. Not to mention, he says it’s the department’s policy that they get a judge’s order anytime they search a phone.  

“You can get a magistrate to do a search warrant for your house,” said Allen. “You can get a magistrate to do a search warrant for your bank account. We use a superior court judge or a federal court judge on all of our phone extractions.” 

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Sheriff officials also expressed that GrayKey comes with a geofence, which means it’ll only work in a set location.  

“In the past, probably the majority of the miles on my county-owned vehicle is driving to Charlotte to the Secret Service office, or driving to Greensboro to the SBI office and dropping phones off with those guys, waiting until they had time to process them, going back and picking them up, and then bringing them back to Rowan,” Earnhardt said. 

The total cost for the new plan is about $18,000. Operation Underground Railroad will fund half of it, which means the county will fund the other $9,000.