White House: San Bernardino iPhone hack doesn't endanger privacy

San Bernardino, mass shooting, Tashfeen Malik, Syed Farook, Farooq

The FBI’s success in hacking the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone should not make Americans worry that their broader privacy is in danger, the White House said Wednesday.

“The reason they should be confident in that privacy is because there are laws on the books that are assiduously followed … that protect the privacy of the American people,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, according to Reuters.

Privacy can be assured, he added, “even as we undertake the necessary actions to protect our national security.”

The Justice Department recently dropped a high-profile case against Apple seeking the tech giant’s help in unlocking an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack in December that killed 14 people.

The agency withdrew its request after the FBI was shown a method of hacking the phone that didn’t require Apple’s help, previously thought to be impossible.

Privacy advocates and technologists immediately called on the government to pass the security flaw it had exploited along to Apple so the company could patch the hole.

This practice is standard protocol for security researchers. If they don’t pass these previously undiscovered weaknesses to the manufacturer, they say, hackers can also exploit the entry point.

But uncovering an unknown security flaw also gives the government a way to crack certain devices, a valuable tool for investigators.

“Disclosing a vulnerability can mean that we forego an opportunity to collect crucial intelligence that could thwart a terrorist attack,” White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel said in a 2014 blog post outlining how the government decides whether to pass along vulnerabilities.

Under a little-known cybersecurity rule adopted by the Obama administration in 2010, previously undiscovered hacks are subject to an interagency review to determine whether they should be disclosed to the manufacturer.

The government has not said whether it will tell Apple how it hacked the phone.

A law enforcement official told reporters Monday that “we can’t comment on the possibility of future disclosures to Apple.”

— Katie Bo Williams contributed