A judge on Tuesday ordered Apple to help federal investigators unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers, in an unprecedented demand that seeks to confront a repeated complaint of law enforcement officials.
The FBI hasn't been able to access the cell phone because it is password-protected and encrypted to prevent access by anyone other than the owner.
In three-page order filed on Tuesday, Apple was ordered by Judge Sheri Pym of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to provide “reasonable technical assistance” in access data on the phone. Specifically, the order tells Apple to bypass or disable a feature that erases all of the data on the phone after too many failed password attempts.
As such, the order does not compel Apple to break the encryption protections — which it has maintained is impossible. Instead, the FBI would be able to use the “brute force” method of breaking into the phone by repeatedly trying various password combinations until it strikes the right one.
The order is a major evolution in the debate over the “going dark” problem frequently cited by law enforcement and intelligence officials, who complain that the proliferation of encryption technology has made it impossible for them to access suspects’ communications.
Data protected with strong encryption technology cannot be accessed by government officials, even if they obtain a warrant.
Last week, FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that the FBI has still been unable to access one of the San Bernardino killers’ phones, more than two months after the attack took place.
“I don’t want a door, I don’t want a window, I don’t want a sliding glass door,” Comey said. “I would like people to comply with court orders, and that’s the conversation we’re trying to have."
The December attack, carried out by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, left 14 people dead and many more injured. The incident was the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It’s unclear what information could be found on the iPhone to shine light on the terror attack, which is not believed to have been carried out in connection to a larger cell or plot. Officials have said they have been unable to account for roughly 18 minutes of the couple’s activities after the shooting.
Tech companies and privacy advocates have bristled at suggestions that they be compelled to put vulnerabilities into their technology in order to help government agents.
Avenues that allow the FBI to access someone’s communications could easily be exploited by foreign intelligence agents, authoritarian governments or rogue hackers, supporters of strong encryption technology insist.
The Obama administration has struggled to develop a response to the vexing issue, but has decided against pursuing legislation mandating companies allow the government to get access to people’s data.
Apple has been among the most vocal defenders of strong encryption tools. Date on new iPhones, for instance, are encrypted by default, automatically erecting barriers against intrusion by anyone without a password.
"We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”
- Updated at 10:28 p.m.