FBI Begins Telling Congress How It Hacked iPhone

Sen. Dianne Feinstein knows how the FBI unlocked an iPhone. Should Apple get to know too?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
April 6, 2016, 3:24 p.m.

How ex­actly the FBI was able to un­lock the iPhone used by one of the San Bern­ardino shoot­ers re­mains a mys­tery to the pub­lic, but in­vest­ig­at­ors have offered to dis­close their tech­nique to some top mem­bers of Con­gress.

Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein of Cali­for­nia, the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, told Na­tion­al Journ­al this week that the FBI ex­plained to her how agents were able to ac­cess the con­tents of the phone that was at the cen­ter of a high-pro­file court fight. In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Burr, a North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an, said he has been in touch with the FBI, but hasn’t learned about its tech­nique yet. “I have been offered [a brief­ing], but I haven’t taken it,” Burr said.

Jack Langer, a spokes­man for the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, de­clined to say wheth­er the FBI has briefed any House mem­bers on the is­sue. The FBI, the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, and oth­er in­tel­li­gence agen­cies routinely provide clas­si­fied brief­ings to the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees, but oth­er law­makers can have lim­ited ac­cess to the in­form­a­tion.

Al­though the FBI has been reach­ing out to mem­bers of Con­gress to dis­cuss the se­cret­ive tech­nique, both Fein­stein and Burr ar­gued that Apple should re­main in the dark. “I don’t be­lieve the gov­ern­ment has any ob­lig­a­tion to Apple,” Fein­stein said in a sep­ar­ately emailed state­ment. “No com­pany or in­di­vidu­al is above the law, and I’m dis­mayed that any­one would re­fuse to help the gov­ern­ment in a ma­jor ter­ror­ism in­vest­ig­a­tion.”

But Apple is press­ing the FBI for more in­form­a­tion, fear­ing that there could be a flaw in the iPhone’s se­cur­ity, leav­ing it vul­ner­able to crim­in­al hack­ers.

Joe Hall, the chief tech­no­lo­gist for the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, a di­git­al-rights group, ar­gued that the gov­ern­ment should “dis­close vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies as quickly as pos­sible to the people who can fix them.”

“The FBI and Apple fun­da­ment­ally have the same mis­sion here: to pro­tect people,” he said.

Syed Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people in Cali­for­nia, used an iPhone 5C, a re­l­at­ively un­pop­u­lar mod­el, and it’s un­clear wheth­er the FBI’s tech­nique would work on oth­er ver­sions.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­cog­nized that it is of­ten in the pub­lic in­terest to help com­pan­ies bol­ster the cy­ber­se­cur­ity of their products, and in 2010, the White House cre­ated a sys­tem called the “Vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies Equit­ies Pro­cess” for dis­clos­ing se­cur­ity flaws to com­pan­ies.

But the pro­cess al­lows the gov­ern­ment to weigh the be­ne­fits of dis­clos­ing the glitch against the harm to law en­force­ment or in­tel­li­gence in­vest­ig­a­tions. And after a con­ten­tious leg­al show­down, the gov­ern­ment may be re­luct­ant to do any­thing that will make it harder to crack the se­cur­ity of Apple devices. Justice De­part­ment law­yers had asked a fed­er­al judge to or­der Apple to help un­lock the device, but they pulled their re­quest just the day be­fore a cru­cial court hear­ing when they said they had dis­covered an­oth­er way of get­ting in­to the device on their own.

In a pub­lic dis­cus­sion at a pri­vacy con­fer­ence on Tues­day, James Baker, the FBI’s gen­er­al coun­sel, de­clined to say wheth­er in­vest­ig­at­ors have ob­tained any use­ful in­form­a­tion from the iPhone.

In the wake of the court fight, Fein­stein and Burr are put­ting the fi­nal touches on a bill to en­sure the gov­ern­ment can ac­cess en­cryp­ted data. They could un­veil the le­gis­la­tion as soon as this week, they said.

The meas­ure is likely to face fierce res­ist­ance from civil liber­ties ad­voc­ates. Hall said he has not seen a copy of the bill yet, but that any­thing re­quir­ing com­pan­ies to build “back­doors” in­to their products would severely un­der­mine cy­ber­se­cur­ity and em­power hack­ers. “Any­thing with a back­door is not se­cure,” he said.

In a speech last week, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Ore­gon Demo­crat and lead­ing pri­vacy ad­voc­ate, said he would use “every power I have as a sen­at­or to block plans to weak­en strong en­cryp­tion.”

Keith Chu, a spokes­man for Wyden, said that al­though the sen­at­or is a mem­ber of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, he has not yet been briefed on how the FBI hacked the device.

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