FBI will continue pushing Apple to unlock iPhone in NY case

FBI will continue pushing Apple to unlock iPhone in NY case
© Getty Images

The government will continue to seek Apple’s help in unlocking the iPhone of a convicted drug trafficker in a carefully watched case in Brooklyn, according to court documents filed on Friday.

“The government’s application is not moot, and the government continues to require Apple’s assistance in accessing the data that it is authorized to search by warrant,’’ prosecutors wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie.

ADVERTISEMENT

The FBI recently backed out of a high-profile case involving the iPhone 5c belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two San Bernardino, Calif., shooters, after it found a way to access the device without Apple’s help.

The Brooklyn case was temporarily put on hold following the FBI’s discovery while the agency tested whether the same method would work on the New York device, a 5s belonging to defendant Jun Feng. Feng has already confessed and is awaiting sentencing.

But FBI Director James Comey revealed this week that the hacking tool the agency used to access Farook’s device only works on a “narrow slice” of iPhones. It does not work on either the newer-model iPhone 6 or the iPhone 5s, he said.

The government is currently appealing a recent decision in Brooklyn case by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, which said that Apple could not be forced to comply with the request to help unlock Feng’s phone.

Apple opposed the order — as well as numerous others across the country — on the grounds that the assistance the FBI has requested would damage privacy and undermine the cybersecurity of its product for other users.

Orenstein’s decision in the case was seen from almost all corners as an unmitigated defense of Apple’s position.

Apple lawyers said Friday that the company will be pressing the government on what avenues it has explored to access the device without Apple’s assistance. They suggest that the FBI is trying to force a precedent that would effectively guarantee it access to locked devices.

The company will be filing its next brief in the Eastern District of New York on Thursday.

Meanwhile, security specialists are urging the government to tell Apple about the flaw it exploited in the San Bernardino case instead of using it to access other locked phones. These researchers fear the flaw will leak to nefarious hackers, endangering millions of iPhone users.

“That’s an interesting conversation, because we tell Apple they’re going to fix it, and then we’re back where we started from,” Comey said this week. “But, look, as silly as that may sound, we may end up there. We just haven’t decided yet."

Apple attorneys expressed confidence that the vulnerability that the agency exploited to gain access to the San Bernardino shooter’s phone would have a short life. The company won’t be suing the federal government to learn the technique, they said.

The news comes the day after further details emerged about a long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee encryption bill that would force companies to provide “technical assistance” to government investigators seeking locked data.

The measure, from Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying Collins backs having Mueller testify Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (R-N.C.) and ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions Five takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Calif.), is a response to concerns that criminals are increasingly using encrypted devices to hide from authorities.

Apple attorneys on Friday declined to comment on the bill, which has been criticized by the tech community and privacy advocates.

“Instead of heeding the warnings of experts, the senators have written a bill that ignores economic, security, and technical reality,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Friday. “It would force companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products by providing backdoors into the devices and services that everyone relies on.”