FBI commits to helping police hack iPhones

FBI commits to helping police hack iPhones
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The FBI has informed state and local law enforcement agencies that it will help unlock seized iPhones when possible.

The assurance came in a memo sent recently to local authorities around the country.

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“As has been our longstanding policy, the FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners,” said the letter, which was obtained by multiple news outlets. “Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints.”

The bureau issued the letter five days after the Department of Justice revealed it was able to successfully hack into an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two shooters in last year's San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack that killed 14 people.

Before the announcement, the DOJ was pressing Apple in court for help unlocking the phone. The tech giant had rebuffed a court order directing the company to create special software that would allow the FBI to access the phone.

Apple — backed by privacy and civil liberties groups — said the software was tantamount to a dangerous “backdoor” that could give hackers access to all iPhones.

Once investigators cracked the phone on their own, the DOJ dropped its case against Apple in a major victory for the tech community and privacy advocates.

But the FBI's success raised new questions about whether the government would use its newly uncovered hacking method to assist other law enforcement officials.

Local police have long expressed a desire to hack into hundreds of locked Apple devices in police custody. They say encryption has allowed criminals to “go dark,” hiding their communications from authorities.

Arkansas officials last week directly sought the FBI’s help with a secure iPhone and iPod at the center of a homicide case.

Security specialists have pressed the government to tell Apple about the flaw it exploited instead of using it to access other locked phones. These researchers fear the flaw will leak to nefarious hackers, endangering millions of iPhone users.

But the DOJ has not commented on whether it will inform Apple about the method it used.

In the meantime, the FBI said it remains committed to helping local officials.

“We know that the absence of lawful, critical investigative tools due to the ‘Going Dark’ problem is a substantial state and local law enforcement challenge that you face daily,” the bureau said.

“You have our commitment that we will maintain an open dialogue with you,” it added. “We are in this together.”