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Judge Orders Apple to Help FBI Break Into San Bernardino Shooter's iPhone

A U.S. attorney hails the ruling.

Brian Vander Brug / Getty Images

A U.S. judge today ordered Apple to help federal investigators extract information locked on an iPhone belonging to one of the suspected shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., mass murders.

The ruling requires Apple to provide the FBI with technology to bypass a feature that would automatically erase the data on the phone after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password. That would theoretically allow the government to crack the device through brute force.

“Since the terrorist attack in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, 2015, that took the lives of 14 innocent Americans and shattered the lives of numerous families, my office and our law enforcement partners have worked tirelessly to exhaust every investigative lead in the case,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible. These victims and families deserve nothing less.”

FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month that the agency was unable to access the contents of a cellphone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, who, together with his wife Tashfeen Malik, is suspected in the shooting. He said the increasingly sophisticated encryption technology on devices is contributing to a phenomenon he refers to as “going dark” — limiting the ability of law enforcement to investigate serious crimes such as murder, drug trafficking and child pornography.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has been arguing against calls for technological back doors on consumer devices, saying any proposal requiring it to essentially leave the keys to a locked device out in the open would invite hacking and other bad behavior.

“We think encryption is a must in today’s world,” Cook said at the WSJDLive conference this fall. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but that’s what it is. Every day, you’re reading about another thing going on. Things happen every day. How do you address that for the mainstream customer?”

In court filings, Decker agues that the government needs Apple’s help to determine, among things, who Farook and Malik may have communicated with to plan and carry out the shootings, and where those people traveled before and after the incident. The FBI has not been able to attempt to unlock the device for fear of tripping the auto-erase feature and permanently losing access to any potential evidence.

“Critical communications and data on the [phone] around the time of the shooting, which has thus far not been accessed, may reside solely on the [phone] and cannot be accessed by any other means known to either the government or Apple,” wrote FBI agent Christopher Pluhar in a court filing. “I have explored other means of obtaining this information with employees of Apple and with technical experts at the FBI and have been unable to identify any other methods feasible for gaining access to the currently inaccessible data.”

The government argues Apple has the ability to modify the phone’s software to turn off the automatic-erase function — without tinkering with the bolstered encryption of the iOS 9 mobile operating system powering the iPhone 5C.

Magistrate Judge Shari Pym’s ruling orders Apple to do just that, and provide the FBI with software that could be loaded on to the iPhone like an upgrade. Once on the phone, it will allow government investigators to attempt to crack the device’s password without causing the information to be erased. The court orders Apple to make “reasonable efforts” to maintain the integrity of the data on the phone.

“This has been well thought out by the FBI and is a smart attempt to find a middle way, to find something that would be the minimum that Apple could do in this case,” said Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer and co-founder of security software firm Veracode. “I don’t think the judge is imagining or inventing something new. I think the FBI has convinced the judge that it can do this in an efficient way.”

Apple has five days to object to the order, if the company believes that complying would be “unreasonably burdensome.”

An Apple spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Arik Hesseldahl.

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