Apple was ordered by a federal magistrate judge to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to federal investigators to unlock the password and access the encrypted data on a specific iPhone 5c used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. The iPhone, owned by Farook’s employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health (the “County”) and provided to him as an employee, was recovered from the family’s vehicle. While the County consented to requests to search the cellphone’s contents, and a warrant was obtained to do so, the government’s motion stated that Apple refused to voluntarily provide assistance.
Investigators believe the cellphone data may provide valuable information about Farook and his wife’s travels and who they communicated with, including individuals that may have provided assistance to plan the shootings. Additionally, investigators have been able to obtain backup versions of Farook’s iCloud data up to about six weeks prior to the shootings. The government believes Farook may have disabled iCloud feature at that time, leaving the only data on the iPhone itself.
However, investigators have been unsuccessful in completing the search of the recovered iPhone because they cannot figure out the password to access the phone’s data. The government wants Apple to provide assistance to bypass this iPhone’s phone’s auto-erase function and to allow an unlimited number of passwords to be tried to unlock the phone. The government’s motion argued that only Apple had the technical means to assist the government in completing this search.
The court’s order gave Apple five days to object if Apple believed that complying with the order would be “unreasonably burdensome.” Almost immediately, Apple issued an open letter on its website, arguing that complying with this order would weaken encryption for all iPhone users. Apple’s argument is that once a back door method or key to unlock the data is known, the government will want to use this method or key to access the encrypted data on other cellphones. Additionally, Apple argued that hackers would find a way to exploit this back door key to steal data. The White House responded to Apple’s argument by confirming that the Department of Justice is seeking access to the data on Farook’s iPhone, it is not asking Apple to jeopardize the security of cellphone products generally by creating or providing a backdoor to encrypted data. Many believe that Apple’s engineers could take this single iPhone and unlock it with software and other tools available to them.