FBI Asked to Disclose Method of Breaking Into iPhone

Published: March 31, 2016 2:46 PM /


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The FBI has dropped its attempt to force Apple's assistance in the San Bernardino case, after the agency managed to break into the phone on its own. Apple is now requesting that the government disclose the method used to break into the phone. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has made a similar request.

While it may seem unlikely that the FBI will comply with the request, there is some basis to expect the agency to disclose the method it used. The government officially recognizes that vulnerabilities in commercial software can put American citizens at risk, and therefore has a standardized review process to determine if vulnerabilities discovered by federal agencies should be disclosed or kept secret. A statement by the Office of the Director of National Security in 2014 said that vulnerabilities should be disclosed "unless there is a clear national security or law enforcement need."

The review process may be complicated if the method to break into the phone is proprietary technology obtained from a third-party. Many commenters have suggested that the Israeli firm Cellebrite provided assistance to the FBI in this case. If that's the case, the FBI may be able to bypass the review process, according to some experts.

However, Paul Rosenzweig, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, stated that he would be shocked if the FBI managed to avoid the review process entirely. Rosenzweig expected that, after review, the FBI would not be required to disclose its method. The main reason is that the method requires physical possession of the phone, and the government would consider it to be a minimal risk to security in general.

Even if the review process does not go the way Apple would like, the company may have another chance to find out how the FBI broke into the phone. The FBI is also requesting Apple's assistance to break into a phone in Brooklyn. The phone in the Brooklyn case is an older model and runs an earlier version of the iOS software than the one in the San Bernardino case, and according to technical experts it should be even easier to break into.

However, the FBI has not yet dropped the case against Apple in Brooklyn, although it has agreed with Apple's request to delay the scheduled hearing. The phone in the Brooklyn case is a version of the iPhone that Apple has assisted the FBI in breaking into in the past, and Apple may have a tough time claiming an undue burden in assisting in that case. On the other hand Apple will aggressively question why the FBI can't use the same method that was used in the San Bernardino case. During the discovery process, Apple may be able to find out some details about how the FBI broke into the phone.

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| Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.