With the debate over encryption on smartphones heating up yet again, one of the most important past controversies in the area needs to be revisited. According to a new report, the FBI could have unlocked the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters without Apple’s help possibly more quickly than it did. But that would have undercut the bureau’s legal efforts to force Apple’s hand and set a precedent requiring future assistance.
The history is suddenly relevant again as the Trump administration is trying to revive proposals to force smartphone makers to add a “backdoor” for law enforcement agencies to get access to users’ encrypted information. Most outside experts warn that approach would weaken the protection of sensitive data for all phone users. The new plans follow a speech in January by FBI director Christopher Wray, who said the bureau needed some kind of backdoor because it was locked out of almost 8,000 phones last year creating “a major public safety issue.” Senator Ron Wyden, who has long opposed weakening encryption, blasted Wray’s view as “ill-informed” and “debunked.”
But just as both sides are reengaging in well-worn arguments, detailed information emerged on Tuesday shedding new light on the massive legal battle between the FBI and Apple in 2016 over the difficulties of decrypting an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
And the new information doesn’t look good for the FBI.
After the December 2, 2015 shooting by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, Calif. during which 14 people were killed, law enforcement officials found an iPhone 5C belonging to Farook. The phone was locked with a passcode. In February, 2016, the FBI went to court seeking to force Apple to rewrite the software running on iPhones to allow the bureau to crack the passcode. Without Apple’s aid, the FBI said it had no way to get past the phone’s encryption. Then-FBI-director James Comey repeated that story twice in Congressional testimony. But as the legal efforts dragged on, the FBI ultimately was able to unlock the phone without Apple’s help by relying on a technique developed by outside experts. (Though not, as was once rumored, Israeli security firm Cellebrite.)