Just days after cracking the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook, the FBI agreed to use the same method to hack into a murder suspect’s iPhone in Arkansas.
Following a legal battle with Apple, the FBI announced in a court filing that Apple would no longer be required to provide court-ordered assistance in breaking the encryption of Farook’s phone after an unnamed third-party company assisted them in breaking the encryption.
According to a postponement application by the Department of Justice for a March 23 lawsuit hearing, the third-party provided a possible method to bypass the iPhone’s security measure that deletes data after 10 failed attempts. After confirming the data would not be compromised, the FBI cracked the encryption.
Representatives of Apple said that the broken encryption creates a privacy concern that puts regular people at risk.
“There’s nothing to stop this government or another from doing this same thing tomorrow, the next day or next week,” said lawyer Ted Olson, who joined the legal battle between Apple and the FBI one month ago.
FBI Director James Comey countered this statement with a post on Lawfare Blog saying that the case is not about sending a message or creating a precedent, but is about seeing that justice is served.
“We don’t want to break anyone’s encryption or set a master key loose on the land. I hope thoughtful people will take the time to understand that. Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn’t,” he said. “But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
While he said that this case was not meant to set a precedent, the FBI agreed to assist in unlocking two smartphones thought to contain evidence for a double-homicide case in Arkansas. In this case, Arkansas teenagers Hunter Dexler and Justin Staton both pleaded innocent of charges of murder and aggravated robbery.
It should be noted that it is not yet clear whether the FBI plans to use the same method they used in the San Bernardino case to unlock the phones. It is also unclear whether the method would even work.
The phone that the prosecution believes to contain evidence for the case is a newer model than Farook’s, who owned an iPhone 5C. Dexler’s is an iPhone 6. This model, first released in September 2014, introduced new encryption technology so sophisticated that Apple employees cannot unlock the device.
As soon as a passcode is created, the phone encrypts data including but not limited to call records, email, text messages and photographs with a similar encryption system to the one used by the U.S. government.
According to Apple’s September 2014 Security Guide, it should take more than five years to attempt all of the possible combinations of a six-character alphanumeric passcode including lowercase letters and numbers.
Sophomore history major Nicholas Terres said that while there are positives and negatives to both Apple’s perspective and the FBI’s perspective. He said that it is important to balance privacy and security and said that the government should create a clearer line between the two with rules explaining when to cross those lines.
“They could set up a method to it, an identifiable document where [their policies] could be fleshed out and not abused,” Terres said.