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The FBI Broke Into the San Bernardino iPhone and Proved it Doesn’t Need Apple

Apple has stated this "raises issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy."​

A smashed iPhone 4. No, not the same model. Image by Flickr user David.

The FBI has successfully unlocked the iPhone 5c, which belonged to one of the perpetrators of last year's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. This means federal agents no longer need a judge to force Apple to help break into the device, ending six weeks of heated litigation as well as public debate over phone privacy.

The iPhone belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife Tashfeen Malik opened fire and killed 14 people at a work holiday party in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015. Both Farook and Malik were later killed in a police shoot out.


The couple destroyed their personal phones. But the locked iPhone in question was Farook's work phone, and because he was employed by the local government, it was technically owned by San Bernardino County.

Given Farook's work phone was password protected, the FBI were unable to recover what they hoped would be vital information about Farook and Malik's movements in the hours leading up to the mass shooting.

The iPhone was also protected by auto-erase, a security feature that permanently erases all data on the phone after 10 incorrect passcode entries. Farook had disabled iCloud back up, which meant all of his data was effectively hidden within the locked phone and nowhere else.

When Apple declined to retrieve the phone's encrypted information, the FBI asked a California magistrate to order the company to create software that would disable its security features.

Apple declined, saying that the order violated its constitutional rights, and put the privacy of its customers in danger. "We have no sympathy for terrorists. We aren't protecting their privacy," Apple CEO Tim Cook said. "[But] if the Government can order Apple to create such a piece of software, it could be ordered for anyone else as well."

Federal officials have declined to say anything about the hacking method used to crack the iPhone. They are believed to have engaged the services of a third party, possibly the Israeli company Cellebrite. After successfully retrieving the phone's data, Justice Department lawyers yesterday submitted that they no longer needed Apple's help and the case would be dropped.


Peter Bibring, the director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, he told the LA Times that the methods used by the FBI to unlock Farook's phone, whatever they were, could be replicated.

"It's likely that the FBI can and will just share its security hack with other federal, state and local agencies that want to crack iPhones, allowing that law enforcement across the country to bypass Apple's security even for routine criminal case," Bibring said.

"The government has said they will continue helping state and local entities access data on mobile phones, but won't explicitly say whether this includes the technique they've developed in this case."

While this court case is over, it's only delayed the inevitable, rather than fully resolving the issue. In fact, the FBI is currently seeking to extract data from 12 other iPhones in separate court cases that don't involved terrorism charges.

In Apple's official statement, released late yesterday, the tech company stated that the case "raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy."

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