DOJ again trying to force Apple's help to break terror suspect's iPhone, says FBI doesn't want 'back door'

"The Order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'backdoor' to every iPhone,” federal prosecutors said in a court motion Friday.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Feb. 19, 2016 at 5:29 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Justice is taking the gloves off in its fight with Apple to access a cellphone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terror suspects.

The federal law enforcement agency filed a court motion Friday in an attempt to force Apple, the phone's manufacturer, to help the FBI break into the smartphone used by suspected gunman Syed Rizwan Farook.

The legal maneuver is the FBI's third attempt at breaking into the phone to obtain potentially important information about the December attack that killed 14 at San Bernardino's Inland Regional Center. Officials have said encryption on the phone is so secure that Apple is now the only entity that can bypass it.

When agents first couldn't get into the phone, they asked for Apple's help. The iPhone maker refused, despite a California court's order, citing privacy concerns.

"Rather than assist the effort to fully investigate a deadly terrorist attack by obeying this court's [previous order], Apple has responded by publicly repudiating that order," prosecutors wrote in Friday's filing, ABC News reported.

Justice prosecutors suggested in Friday's filing that Apple appears to be more concerned about profits than prevention of future potential attacks.

"Apple's current refusal to comply with the Court's Order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, instead appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy," prosecutors wrote.

The iPhone in question belongs to the city of San Bernardino, Farook's employer, but investigators haven't been able to access the device due to the sophisticated level of security on the smartphone.

Authorities say Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire indiscriminately at the social services center during a holiday party on Dec. 2. The pair fled the scene but were tracked down and shot dead by police hours later. It was the deadliest domestic terror attack since 9/11.

The information authorities seek involves data that might be in the phone concerning other potential conspirators in the attack or other intelligence that could shine more light on the plot.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at a climate change event in New York City in 2014. This week, Cook expressed grave concerns about creating special software that would allow the FBI to gain access to an iPhone used by San Bernardino terror suspect Syed Farook, who is accused of colluding with his wife to carry out an attack that killed 14 people on Dec. 2. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

"Pertinent information that would provide more information about their and others' involvement in the deadly shooting," was the description used by prosecutors in their initial request for Apple's assistance this week.

Apple's response, though, was swift, definitive and expressed great concern.

"The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create," chief executive Tim Cook said Wednesday.

The problem, as seen by Apple, is that the FBI's request requires the company to create software that would facilitate the siphoning of personal data from the locked iPhone -- which is exactly the type of activity the security features were designed to prevent.

The ongoing fight has divided Americans into two camps.

Several privacy and technology experts and officials have supported Apple's position.

"Requiring companies to enable hacking of customer devices and data. Could be a troubling precedent," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said this week.

Others, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, feel that the need for national security and the safety of American citizens, at a time when domestic terrorism is on the rise, should be higher priorities than any company's theoretical privacy concerns -- particularly on a case-by-case basis, such as the one involving Farook's device.

"Apple, this is one case. ... a case that certainly we should be able to get into the phone," Trump told Fox News Wednesday. "Who do they think they are? No, we have to open it up."

Cook has said the primary concern with helping the FBI in such an endeavor is the potential for abuses in the future.

"The FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on [Farook's] iPhone," he added. "In the wrong hands, this software -- which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession.

"They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."

Federal prosecutors, though, say that's not at all what the FBI has asked for.

"The Order does not, as Apple's public statement alleges, require Apple to create or provide a 'backdoor' to every iPhone," the filing said.

Rather, prosecutors say, the FBI is asking Apple to disable a security feature on Farook's phone alone -- which will reset and erase its contents if agents enter an incorrect password more than 10 times. The same feature is installed on every iPhone the tech giant makes.

Without the feature, the bureau's experts would be able to execute an unlimited number of attempts until they cracked the password.

The fight, if it continues, could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

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