How FBI Hacked Terrorist’s iPhone Will Remain A Mystery

Updated on

The Department of Justice announced yesterday that it had dropped its legal challenge with Apple owing to the fact that it had successfully unlocked an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernandino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook. Now, Apple now believes that the DOJ should tell them how despite the company’s refusal to help.

Creating backdoor into iPhone – Apple said, FBI said

This back and forth should continue for some time. Apple refused to create a “backdoor” into one of its iPhones when approached by the FBI. A judge in federal court, with the urging of the federal government, ordered Apple to assist the FBI. Apple also refused this order leading to both support from other tech firms like Facebook and Google among others but, not surprisingly, drawing the ire of Donald Trump and others that seem to think that privacy doesn’t matter when battling terrorism and just generally don’t like the idea of encrypted data.

That legal challenge was dropped yesterday after the FBI announced that it had opened the phone without Apple’s help. How they did it is anyone’s guess but many suggest that the Israeli firm Cellbrite was involved in the process as the FBI had announced that it was retaining the firms services.

Whether privacy or national security is more important will continue to be debated, likely for years, but in the case of this one phone it seems a bit of a moot point. Unfortunately for Apple, it now looks like its security wasn’t as good as once thought. My personal belief is that the FBI opened the phone quite some time ago but by hiring Cellbrite wished to give the illusion that it was struggling with device and forcing the privacy security argument into a public forum without showing its hand.

Now the question is whether or not the FBI will tell Apple how they did it, something that Apple would be keen to correct immediately. If not, which is more likely after Apple’s refusal, the question is whether Apple will launch a legal challenge of their own demanding this information from the FBI.

“From a legal standpoint, what happened in the San Bernardino case doesn’t mean the fight is over,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. She points out there is a process that the government utilizes to determine whether to share security information with manufacturers, but it in this case it could also boil down to spite due to Apple’s initial refusal to cooperate.

“I would hope they would give that information to Apple so that it can patch any weaknesses,” she said, “but if the government classifies the tool, that suggests it may not.”

Justice Department filing on Monday

Yesterday’s announcement from the DOJ was short and sweet(?). The DOJ wrote in a filing that is had “now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple.”

While it may turn out that the iPhone in question holds nothing of value to law enforcement, the Justice Department remained silent on the issue as expected in an active investigation, or again spite.

“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” said Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors.”

“This case should never have been brought,” Apple said in a statement yesterday. The statement also pointed out that Apple has and will continue to work with law enforcement.

The statement from Apple also pointed out that the company would “continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.”

Until the iPhone was unlocked it very much looked as though the case would make it to the short-handed supreme court.

Following the ruling by a federal magistrate judge in California ordering Apple to unlock the iPhone Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO,  responded with an open letter that saying among other things that “compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk.”

“Courts should be skeptical going forward when the government claims it has no other option besides compelling a device maker’s assistance,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, a cryptography fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society in an interview with the New York Times

“Now that the F.B.I. has accessed this iPhone, it should disclose the method for doing so to Apple,” she added. “Apple ought to have the chance to fix that security issue, which likely affects many other iPhones.”

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