US may have found way to access iPhone of San Bernardino attacker without Apple’s help

The official seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation seen on an iPhone's camera screen outside the J. Edgar Hoover headquarters on Feb 23, 2016.
The official seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation seen on an iPhone's camera screen outside the J. Edgar Hoover headquarters on Feb 23, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The US government said on Monday (March 21) that it may have found a way to access the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino attackers without Apple’s help, possibly avoiding a showdown with the tech giant.

On Sunday, “an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone”, Justice Department attorneys said in a court filing.

“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone.

“If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc. set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case.”

A California federal judge who was set to preside over a hearing in the crucial case on Tuesday granted the prosecutor’s request and asked that a status report be filed by April 5.

The new development may help avert, at least for now, a legal showdown between the US government and Apple that could have wide ramifications on digital security and privacy.

Federal prosecutors and Apple for weeks have traded a volley of legal briefs related to the FBI’s demand that the tech giant help investigators unlock Farook’s work phone.

The FBI says the device may contain critical information for its probe into the Dec 2 shooting that left 14 people dead and was the deadliest terror attack in the US since 9/11.

Apple, however, has balked at a court order to help investigators, citing customer privacy and security concerns.

The company, backed by security experts, civil rights advocates and other tech giants – including Google, Facebook and Microsoft – contends that assisting the FBI would jeopardize users’ data and set a precedent for other similar cases.

“We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and our privacy,” chief executive Tim Cook said, speaking at Apple headquarters to unveil a new line of iPhones and iPads.

“We believe strongly we have an obligation to help protect your data and your privacy. We owe it to our customers. We will not shrink from this responsibility.”

The FBI wanted Apple to write new software – or what the company said was create a “backdoor” – that would allow investigators to circumvent the iPhone’s built-in security.

It has argued that Apple is not above the law and that its request for technical assistant concerns only Farook’s work phone from the San Bernardino health department.

“It is a narrow, targeted order... The government and the community need to know what is on the terrorist’s phone, and the government needs Apple’s assistance to find out,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in one brief to the court.

Farook and his Pakistani-born wife Tashfeen Malik died in a firefight with police after the attack. Two other cell phones linked to the couple were found destroyed.

Several people who had relatives killed in the attack have filed a brief in support of the FBI saying the contents of Farook’s phone may “explain the motive for this senseless tragedy.”

However, tech giants and civil rights advocates have rallied behind Apple, warning that the case goes beyond just one phone and that if the court sides with the FBI, it would spring open a “Pandora’s Box” for human rights.

“Governments trying to undermine encryption should think twice before they open this Pandora’s Box,” Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International’s deputy director for global issues, said in a statement.

“Weakening privacy online could have disastrous consequences for free societies, particularly for the human rights activists and journalists who hold our leaders to account.”

Rights advocates also argue that while the FBI’s request to access the data on Farook’s phone may be legitimate, the method of accessing it raises concerns.