Friday 19 January 2018

FBI hacks mass killer's iPhone without Apple's help

US President Barack Obama (Reuters)
US President Barack Obama (Reuters)

Jonathan Gray

The legal fight pitting the Obama administration against tech giant Apple ended unexpectedly after the FBI said it used a mysterious method without Apple's help to hack into a California mass murderer's iPhone.

Questions remain about how the sudden development would affect privacy in the future, and what happens the next time the US government is frustrated by digital security lockout features.

Government prosecutors had asked a federal judge to vacate a disputed order forcing Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone, saying it was no longer necessary. The FBI used the unspecified technique to access data on an iPhone used by gunman Syed Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after they killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December.

The US justice department said agents are now reviewing the information on the phone.

The government's brief court filing, in the US district court for the Central District of California, provided no details about how the FBI got into the phone. Nor did it identify the non-government "outside party" who showed agents how to get past the phone's security.

Authorities had previously said only Apple had the ability to help them unlock the phone.

Apple responded by saying it will continue to increase the security of its products.

"We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along," the company added in a statement, while reiterating its argument that the government's demand for Apple's help was wrong.

FBI assistant director David Bowdich said examining the iPhone was part of the authorities' effort to learn if the San Bernardino shooters had worked with others or had targeted any other victims.

"I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before," he said in a statement.

The dispute ignited a fierce internet-era debate that pitted digital privacy rights against national security concerns and reinvigorated discussion over the impact of encryption on law enforcement's ability to serve the public.

Californian representative Darrell Issa said that while it was "preferable" that the government gained access to the iPhone without Apple's help, the fundamental question of the extent to which the government should be able to access personal information remains unanswered.

Republican Mr Issa, a critic of the administration's domestic surveillance practices, said the government's legal action against Apple raised constitutional and privacy questions and that "those worried about our privacy should stay wary" because this does not mean "their quest for a secret key into our devices is over".

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