FBI facing demands to share its claimed technique to unlock iPhones

Law enforcement agencies across the US want FBI to help to unlock their smartphones after the Bureau claims success with San Bernardino shooter’s phone

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2016, 12:02am

Any day now, Hillar Moore is expecting a call from the FBI.

Moore, a district attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has publicly lamented that Apple’s iPhone encryption is keeping local police out of a murder victim’s phone. On Monday, the FBI announced it would drop its court battle with Apple after it figured out a way to pull data from the iPhone of Syed Farook, the San Bernardino gunman.

Moore, like many others, wants in. “Waiting on them to call me,” he wrote in an email, “to see if they can assist in getting into my phone.”

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The FBI faces some tough questions after announcing it has a technique for hacking into Farook’s iPhone – something Apple says shouldn’t be possible on current models without a user’s passcode. Naturally, a lot of other people – from local police to parents – say they could benefit from the technology.

The technique is a closely guarded secret at FBI headquarters. It probably relies on a security flaw in Apple’s mobile operating system. Because of that, the bureau realises that the more widely it’s shared, the more likely Apple could learn about the technique and patch it.

This can be hard to fathom for people who just want access to a locked iPhone. A father in Italy is asking Apple to unlock his dead son’s phone – so he can reminisce through his son’s stored pictures – or he will try to find the tool the FBI used.

On Wednesday, a local prosecutor in Arkansas told the press that the bureau had agreed to share its technique with him in a murder case involving an iPhone and an iPod.

He may have got ahead of himself. The FBI on Thursday took the unusual step of correcting a local law enforcement official. It said that local police asked the FBI for help unlocking the phone on March 28 – the same day the bureau announced it was dropping its Apple case – but that it hadn’t yet received the devices.

“The FBI frequently receives requests from our local partners to provide expert technical assistance. Such requests are considered on a case-by-case basis,” an FBI spokesman said. “The FBI’s handling of this request is not related to the San Bernardino matter.”

With Moore’s case, a woman was shot on her doorstep by a killer who remains unknown. Her iPhone backups stop months before the shooting and police wonder if they could find a lead in her iPhone diary and text messages. But no one can figure out the phone’s passcode.

There are a lot of ways to get data from an iPhone: data can be backed up on Apple’s iCloud service and a variety of techniques exist to crack open phones running older versions of Apple’s operating system.

But whether these people could find another way into the phone is immaterial now the FBI has announced it has a panacea.

Cyrus Vance, the outspoken district attorney for New York county, appeared to realise the limits of the Justice Department’s technological breakthrough last week. In the past, Vance has said there are some 175 phones linked to criminal cases that his office cannot unlock. 

“We cannot ask crime victims across 3,000 local jurisdictions to stake their hope for justice on an unending technological arms race between the government and Apple,” he said in a press release. “The overwhelming majority of criminal investigations stalled by default device encryption will remain so until Congress intervenes.”