The FBI’s top lawyer on Tuesday refused to disclose what the agency found on San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone, which it broke into last week.
Whether the FBI will ever make public the contents of the phone, he said, "depends on what it is that we found.”
“Normally we don't have such detailed real-time public discussions about precise surveillance tools,” General Counsel James Baker said, speaking at a privacy conference in Washington, D.C.
The Justice Department announced last week that it was able to access Farook’s iPhone without Apple’s help, putting an end to a public court case over whether the company could be compelled to help authorities hack into the phone.
The FBI wanted Apple to create software to disable a failsafe security feature that would wipe the phone’s memory if an incorrect password were attempted incorrectly 10 times. Apple refused on the grounds that such software was akin to a dangerous “backdoor” that could give hackers access to all iPhones.
The bureau suddenly changed course last week, when it said a third party outside the government had approached the agency with a previously undiscovered way to crack into the phone.
It remains unclear what the method is. Technologists and digital rights activists have been pressuring the FBI to tell Apple how it hacked in, lest online criminals exploit whatever unpatched weakness the agency used to gain access to the device.
Baker confirmed Tuesday that the agency has not disclosed the method to Apple.
Critics of the agency have argued that its dogged pursuit of access to Farook’s phone was motivated by a desire to force a precedent on encryption policy — not the belief that the contents of the device would be valuable to the FBI’s investigation of the shootings.
Some have cast doubt on the value of Farook’s phone. Two other phones used by the terrorists were destroyed before the attack. Farook left the disputed device, his work phone, lying casually in his vehicle.
“The possibility that there’s any information on this phone about an imminent attack is negligible or zero,” former White House counterterrorism and cybersecurity chief Richard Clarke told The Hill last month.
Before the agency cracked the phone, FBI Director James B. Comey allowed that the phone might be, in fact, worthless.
“Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t,” he wrote in a public appeal pleading the agency’s case against Apple. “But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead.”
Asked whether the contents of the phone were worth the public fight with Apple, Baker on Tuesday cited the agency’s responsibility to the victims of the December attack, which killed 14.
“It was worth the fight to make sure we have turned over every rock that we can with respect to the investigation,” he said. “I think we owe it to the victims and their families to pursue every logical lead.”