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Why The FBI Can't Access The San Bernardino Attacker's iPhone

Federal Bureau of Investigation logo On Tuesday, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) admitted during House Judiciary Committee hearings that his agency lost an opportunity to access the San Bernardino attacker's iPhone when it reset the password to the iCloud account associated with the phone. The New York Times reported:

"There was a mistake made in the 24 hours after the attack,” James B. Comey Jr., the director of the F.B.I., told lawmakers at a hearing on the government’s attempt to force Apple to help “unlock” the iPhone. F.B.I. personnel apparently believed that by resetting the iCloud password, they could get access to information stored on the iPhone. Instead, the change had the opposite effect — locking them out and eliminating other means of getting in."

A Federal Court judge had ruled last month in favor of the FBI, and ordered Apple to develop the software to unlock the attacker's phone. Apple is appealing the ruling. FBI officials have claimed that the phone may contain information about what the attacker and his wife did before the attack, and who they communicated with. More details emerged during the hearing:

"When the dispute over Mr. Farook’s iPhone erupted two weeks ago, the Justice Department blamed technicians at San Bernardino County, which employed Mr. Farook as an environmental health specialist and which owned the phone he used. But county officials said their technicians had changed the password only “at the F.B.I.’s request.” Mr. Comey acknowledged at the hearing that the F.B.I. had directed the county to change the password."

Apple Inc. logo Bruce Sewell, the general counsel at Apple, also spoke at the hearing on Tuesday. He warned:

"... the F.B.I.’s demand for technical help to unlock Mr. Farook’s iPhone 5c “would set a dangerous precedent for government intrusion on the privacy and safety of its citizens.” Apple has said that in many cases investigators have other means to gain access to crucial information, and in some instances it has turned over data stored in iCloud."

Mr. Sewell also said:

"... before F.B.I. officials ordered the password reset, Apple first wanted them to try to connect the phone to a “known” Wi-Fi connection that Mr. Farook had used. Doing so might have recovered information saved to the phone since October, when it was last connected to iCloud. “The very information that the F.B.I. is seeking would have been available, and we could have pulled it down from the cloud..."

So, the FBI has only itself to blame for the current mess, and for making access to the attacker's iPhone more difficult.

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