The Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) is the first law enforcement agency in San Diego County to obtain new technology that can crack a locked iPhone.
The CVPD purchased a software program in April called GrayKey, made by Gray Shift, that connects to the iPhone and extracts the passcode. The software costs $15,000 to unlock 300 iPhones.
"We recognize as an agency that with the technological advances, we need to be able to have different types of tools to be able to solve cases," said CVPD Lt. Dan Peak.
Peak said the software has been helpful to investigators, particularly in identifying stolen property and motives for a crime, as well as linking a suspect to a crime.
"Either there's going to be some evidence to the crime on the phone or there may be nothing at all," explained Peak. "But in the past, that phone would just sit there in evidence and it would be an unknown."
Retrieval of data on a person's phone came under scrutiny after an attack at a San Bernardino County Public Health Department's holiday party on Dec. 2, 2015 that killed 14 people.
That attack set up a showdown between the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Apple over access to data on the suspect's iPhone.
A Justice Department filing in 2016 argued that the phone likely holds evidence of the eventual attack, and the government and community "need to know" what is on the device. Apple alone has the ability to help, and doing so is not unduly burdensome, the government said.
A judge directed Apple to help the FBI break into the suspect's phone, but the FBI ended an ongoing court battle when they hired an unidentified third party company to gain access to the suspect's iPhone.
Peak said California's strict privacy laws mean the Chula Vista Police Department must have probable cause before requesting to use the new technology.
"The state of California has the strictest privacy rights in the nation," said Peak. "The department just can't grab a phone from a citizen and use the system to access it. We have to have probable cause. We have to have the case vetted through the district attorney's office and ultimately go in front of a judge to have a court order or a search warrant."
New software such as GrayKey gives local law enforcement that access. But Apple is pushing back.
On Wednesday, the technology company said its latest update would close a security gap that allowed outsiders to pry personal information from locked iPhones without a password.
NBC 7 contacted Gray Shift, which has a listed address in Atlanta, and has not heard back.