FBI Cracks iPhone

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On March 28, 2016, the Department of Justice said that it had been able to access the data on the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook and thus that it no longer needed Apple’s assistance to crack the phone.

Farook and his wife, Tasheen Malik, killed 14 people in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 2015. Farook and Malik were themselves killed by police and were later found to have been inspired by Islamist extremist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL; also called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]). The FBI seized Farook’s work iPhone and had the permission of Farook’s employer to access the phone, but the iPhone was locked and, because Farook was dead, they did not have his passcode. The FBI could not just start typing in guesses, because each incorrect guess introduces a longer delay and too many incorrect guesses could wipe the phone. The FBI therefore filed a court order under the All Writs Act of 1789, asking Apple to create a special version of the iOS operating system that would allow brute force guessing of passcodes. The special iOS would only be used once on Farook’s phone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook refused, saying that, “once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks—from restaurants and banks to stores and homes.” The legal battle between Apple and the FBI would have set significant precedents for the balance between security and privacy.

It is unknown exactly how the FBI cracked the iPhone. Speculation has centered on the Israeli company Cellebrite, which reportedly worked with the FBI and has software that can bypass an iPhone’s security, or on a previously unknown flaw in the iPhone’s security.

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