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Justice Department Moves to Force Apple to Help FBI Hack iPhone

DOJ tries to force Apple's hand.

The Verge

The Justice Department has filed a motion in federal district court to force Apple to comply with a judge’s order to help the FBI break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers.

Earlier this week, a magistrate judge ordered Apple to furnish software that would allow law enforcement to break the passcode feature on an older iPhone 5C used by one of the suspected attackers. Investigators argue in court documents that information stored on the phone may shed light on critical details about the shooting and those involved.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has called such a demand both dangerous and unprecedented. In an open letter to consumers, he wrote that the FBI was asking Apple to create a technological back door to bypass the phone’s password protection and allow law enforcement to hack the device through brute force.

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook wrote. “If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”

The showdown has wide-reaching implications in and outside the United States and could render the modern sophisticated encryption of mobile devices effectively obsolete under court order.

In a 25-page motion filed Friday morning in the Riverside, Calif., court, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker blasted Cook’s statements, arguing that the government is making a specific, limited request for help that doesn’t require Apple to break its encryption.

“The order does not, as Apple’s public statement alleges, require Apple to create a ‘back door’ to every iPhone, it does not provide ‘hackers and criminals’ access to iPhones, it does not require Apple to ‘hack [its] own users’ or to ‘decrypt its own phones,’ it does not give the government ‘the power to reach into anyone’s device’ without a warrant or court authorization, and it does not compromise the security of personal information,” Decker wrote.

Decker said the judge’s order to assist the FBI allows the company to retain custody of the software and even allows Apple to determine how it helps the government in its investigation of the mass killing of 14 people on Dec. 2 in San Bernardino.

In the wake of Cook’s public statements, Decker filed a motion with the federal district court to order the company to provide the FBI with the technical assistance to extract information from the cellphone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who, together with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, is suspected in the shooting. Both were later killed in a shootout with police.

“The government does not seek to deny Apple its right to be heard,” Decker wrote. “However, the urgency of this investigation requires this motion now that Apple has made its intentions not to comply perfectly clear.”

Decker writes that Apple does not say it lacks the technological ability to do what the court asks, or that it would be too burdensome. “Apple appears to object based on a combination of perceived negative impact on its reputation and marketing strategy, were it to provide the ordered assistance to the government,” she wrote.

The court document notes that Apple’s engineers and the FBI discussed other ways to get information about the terrorist attack. That included obtaining cellphone call records, determining whether the iPhone had been paired with a computer (which could used to obtain the data) and checking for automatic backups with Farook’s iCloud account.

Investigators did all that and concluded the information was “insufficient” — especially in the case of the iCloud account, where the last backup occurred on Oct. 19, a month and a half before the fatal shootings, according to the court filing.

Apple has not been immediately available for comment.

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