A U.S. magistrate judge in California on Tuesday ordered Apple to help the FBI retrieve encrypted data on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino killers. Investigators have so far been unable to gain access to the data on killer Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone, which could contain communications between him and his wife and co-conspirator, Tashfeen Malik, and potentially others, prior to the December 2 shooting rampage that killed 14 people.
“Prosecutors said they needed Apple’s help accessing the phone’s data to find out who the shooters were communicating with and who may have helped plan and carry out the massacre, as well as where they traveled prior to the incident,” NBC News reports. “The judge ruled Tuesday that Apple had to provide ‘reasonable technical assistance’ to the government in recovering data from the iPhone 5c, including bypassing the auto-erase function and allowing investigators to submit an unlimited number of passwords in their attempts to unlock the phone.”
The court filing by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said “Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily.” Apple has five days to respond to the ruling.
Some interesting issues afoot here. First, it appears the FBI cannot figure out a way to bypass Apple’s security feature, the one that bricks the phone after a certain number of unsuccessful login attempts. If Apple modified the phone so an unlimited number of attempts can be made, then the Feds would simply brute force the password, trying potentially millions of combinations.
Or is it?
America’s intelligence agencies have so far been unsuccessful in persuading manufacturers and/or Congress to create and pass on to them backdoors around security and encryption. The FBI may indeed know how to get into the iPhone, but wants to make this a public example case — who can complain about learning more about real terrorists (no ambiguity issues), and of course the phone’s owners are dead, and so cannot claim their Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure/privacy are being violated.
Also of interest would be an Apple claim that while they will cooperate, it is technically impossible to comply with the request, i.e., the phone simply cannot be modified as the FBI wishes. Could a court require Apple to turn over all of their code and engineering documents so that the NSA could have a shot at what Apple said it could not do on its own?
Equally interesting would be even if Apple can comply this time, would Apple run into future legal issues if they created a next generation phone that truly could not be modified no matter what, making it fully unhackable, even by their own engineers?
Either way, the suit against Apple sets a precedent, likely making it easier for the Feds to compel cooperation from tech companies in more legally hazy cases in the future.