The San Bernardino district attorney on Thursday told a federal judge that the locked iPhone used by one of the shooters in last December’s terrorist attack may contain a dormant cyber weapon.
The claim was made in a court filing in the case over Apple’s defiance of a court order directing the company to comply with the FBI by unlocking the iPhone used by government employee Syed Farook, one of the two assailants who killed 14 people in the assault.
"The iPhone is a county owned telephone that may have connected to the San Bernardino County computer network,” said Michael Ramos, San Bernardino County district attorney, in the filing. “The seized iPhone may contain evidence that can only be found on the seized phone that it was used as a weapon to introduce a lying dormant cyber pathogen that endangers San Bernardino's infrastructure.”
The possible presence of such a cyber weapon, Ramos said, “poses a continuing threat to the citizens of San Bernardino County.” Investigators need to be allowed access to the device, he insisted.
Apple has refused to assist the FBI, arguing that compliance would endanger the security of all other iPhones and set a dangerous precedent that allows the government to force companies to hack secure devices.
The statement is one of the first indications of what investigators believe might be on the phone. Several law enforcement officials had previously acknowledged there may be nothing of use on the phone, leading some to criticize the FBI for taking such a controversial stance in the case.
But Ramos was not clear what, exactly, he meant by “cyber pathogen.” It would appear that the district attorney was referring to a computer virus that could infect the broader government network.
But security experts — who have staunchly defended Apple in its standoff with the FBI — were quick to discredit the claim.
“Cyber pathogen” is not a common information security term, said Jonathan Zdziarski, a well-regarded researcher who probes Apple’s software for flaws.
“Ramos’s statements are not only misleading to the court, but amount to blatant fear mongering,” Zdziarski said in a blog post. “They are designed to manipulate the court into making a ruling for the FBI.”
Ramos’s argument was made as part of a flurry of briefs filed Thursday on behalf of both Apple and the FBI.
Apple was backed by a plethora of other big names in tech, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Twitter. Digital rights advocates and tech industry trade groups also filed briefs on the company’s behalf.
The fight has become a proxy for a larger battle about government access to encrypted data.
While the FBI and law enforcement warn that secure communications platforms are allowing terrorists and criminals to increasingly hide from authorities, privacy advocates and the tech community insist unbreakable encryption is necessary to maintain digital security and online privacy.