When seeking Apple’s help opening an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the FBI argued it would only use a key provided by Apple on that particular device. But now that a third party has cracked the phone for the FBI instead, it seems all bets are off.
In a memo sent to local law enforcement agencies at the end of last week, the FBI pledged to help investigators unlock mobile devices as much as they lawfully can.
“As has been our longstanding policy, the FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners,” the agency said in a letter cited by Reuters and Buzzfeed News. “Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints.”
According to the agency, the FBI’s device-cracking knowledge will help fill a gap in the “absence of lawful, critical investigative tools” to combat the issue of criminals “Going Dark.”
The move is just the latest twist in a high-profile case in which the FBI sought Apple’s assistance in accessing the contents of the work smartphone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
In February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to help the FBI crack the device by creating software that would allow investigators to bypass a feature that erases the device’s content after a certain number of incorrect password guesses.
Apple CEO Tim Cook resisted the order, saying the “U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.” The FBI said Apple had the “exclusive technical means” to open the device and said the key it sought from Apple would be used only on the device in question.
A number of large tech firms, including U.S. carriers AT&T and Verizon, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo, rallied around Apple.
In a shocking about-face at the end of last month, however, the FBI said a third party had offered a potentially viable way into the device and asked Pym to delay a scheduled hearing with Apple so it could test the technology.
The FBI later said it had successfully infiltrated the iPhone in question. Though the FBI declined to name the outside party that provided assistance, reports indicated it may have been Israel-based mobile forensics company Cellebrite.
The FBI subsequently dropped its case against Apple.
How long will the hack last?
But the FBI’s assistance to local law enforcement could be short lived.
Though the FBI has not announced any plans to share its hacking methods with Apple, an Apple employee told Reuters the flaw exploited by the FBI will come light sooner or later.
According to Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner, once the hack is out, Apple will pounce on the opportunity to close the loop.
“It will leak out and then they will close the gap because when it leaks out it’s not only the government that will be able to hack into the phones, it will also be criminals,” Entner said.
But Entner said the battle for access to encrypted information will continue even after Apple closes the FBI’s loophole.
“There will be a continuous tug of war until there is a legislative solution to the issue,” Entner said. “We have this inherent conflict between the government and law enforcement drive towards being able to access all information to solve crimes and the principles that protect our liberty.”
“We need to have a discussion in this country about privacy about security because we have to come to a consensus about it,” he continued. “Fundamentally it comes down to the choice between more security and less security, and I don’t think (blanket access to citizen data) is what the Founding Fathers had in mind.”