The United State Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has absolved San Bernardino police of responsibility for changing passwords on the iPhone once used by suspected terror suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook.
Last December, Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 co-workers, before themselves being killed by Police. It's believed that the pair may have been motivated by links to foreign terrorists, making the contents of their phones of great interest to investigators.
But Farook's iPhone 5c has to date proved impenetrable, leading the FBI to secure a court order compelling Apple to build a special cut of its iOS software to allow unlimited attempts at guessing its password. iOS currently wipes a device after ten unsuccessful login attempts.
Apple has refused that request, sparking ongoing debate about vendors' responsibility to ensure their customers' privacy versus investigators' need for access to evidence, especially in cases with national security implications.
Along the way, it's been suggested that Farook's iPhone has proved hard to crack because authorities in the county of San Bernardino handled the Phone without thought to the ramifications of iOS' lockout features. If true, such bungling would rather dent the argument that vendors need to make life easier for law enforcement authorities.
Now the FBI has weighed in and taken responsibility for the situation.
A widely-circulated statement says its people “worked cooperatively with the county of San Bernardino in order to exploit crucial data contained in the iCloud account associated with a county-issued iPhone that was assigned to the suspected terror suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook.”
“Since the iPhone 5C was locked when investigators seized it during the lawful search on December 3rd, a logical next step was to obtain access to iCloud backups for the phone in order to obtain evidence related to the investigation in the days following the attack,” the statement reads. “The FBI worked with San Bernardino County to reset the iCloud password on December 6th, as the county owned the account and was able to reset the password in order to provide immediate access to the iCloud backup data.”
The rest of the statement points out that resetting the iCloud password doesn't mean Apple is any less able to help by making it possible for the FBI to peer into the phone itself, rather than backups.
“Through previous testing, we know that direct data extraction from an iOS device often provides more data than an iCloud backup contains,” the statement argues.
“Even if the password had not been changed and Apple could have turned on the auto-backup and loaded it to the cloud, there might be information on the phone that would not be accessible without Apple’s assistance as required by the All Writs Act order, since the iCloud backup does not contain everything on an iPhone.”
The FBI therefore calls on Apple to co-operate, but all signs are that Cupertino's not minded to do so.
Over the weekend, even Huawei's weighed in on the side of Apple and user privacy.
Lawyers have doubtless been forced to miss weekend junior sports engagements and other leisure activities so they can fight this one out once Monday rolls around in the United States. ®