Apple ordered to break into San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

Apple ordered to break into San Bernardino shooter's iPhone

A federal judge has ordered Apple to help the FBI break into an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters.

By Kevin Johnson and Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY 12:39 a.m. EST February 17, 2016

WASHINGTON — Apple must help the FBI break into an iPhone belonging to one of the killers in the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings, a federal judge ordered Tuesday.

Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, shot and killed 14 people in December. The couple later died in a gun battle with police. The iPhone was recovered from their vehicle in the aftermath of the attack.

The ruling from U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym requires Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the FBI, namely, software that can disable the security feature that erases data from the iPhone after too many unsuccessful attempts to unlock it.

Federal prosecutors told the court they could not access the phone used by Farook because they don’t know his passcode. With the security feature disabled, they can attempt as many combinations necessary to unlock the iPhone.

The iPhone in this case was not the property of Farook, but of his employer, San Bernardino County, which consented to the search.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

FBI director James Comey could not be immediately reached for comment.

Last week, Comey told a Senate panel that investigators still have not been able to unlock the encrypted cellphone of one of the terrorists who carried out the attack, which also left 20 others wounded.

"We still have one of those killer's phones that we haven't been able to open," Comey told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on threats to the homeland. "It's been over two months now. We are still working on it."

Comey made the comments in response to questions from senators about how encrypted cellphones and other electronic devices can hinder investigations because they cannot be unlocked, even by the companies that made them.

Comey could not be immediately reached for comment.

The encryption debate, which often pits security hawks against privacy advocates, has intensified in the wake of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., is working with Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on legislation that would compel tech companies to provide encrypted data to law enforcement agencies.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said the move to unlock the phone represented an attempt to “exhaust every investigative lead in the case.’’

"We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible,’’ Decker said. "These victims and families deserve nothing less. The application filed today in federal court is another step — a potentially important step — in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino.”

The Obama administration has held high-level discussions with Silicon Valley companies to press Apple, Facebook and others to do more to prevent terrorists from using the Internet to spread propaganda, incite violence and attract new recruits. Companies, sensitive to the fallout from government spying revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, have been wary of being seen as aiding the government to spy on users.

A major point of contention: law enforcement's concerns that tech companies provide encrypted communications that terrorists can use to hide their activities.

Apple has five business days to respond to the order.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is considering filing an amicus brief in support of Apple and expects other digital rights groups to do the same, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"If the U.S. government can force Apple to do this, why can’t the Chinese or Russian governments? Other countries will ask for this same power. Do we want to have this be universal?" Opsahl said.

The risk? If Apple creates a program to break into this iPhone, it will essentially be a "master key" for other iPhones, he warned.

"It would be possible for the government to take this key, modify it and use it on other phones," Opsahl said. "That risks a lot, that the government will have this power and it will not be misused."


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