The public dispute between the Justice Department and Apple continued Monday as the tech giant called on the government to withdraw its demands for help in unlocking a phone used by one of the shooters in December’s terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and instead let a commission of experts discuss the issue.
This request came in an unsigned letter posted online by Apple that offered the company’s perspective on the debate, the latest salvo in a war of words between the federal government and one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Apple urged the Justice Department to drop its request and instead “form a commission or other panel of experts on intelligence, technology, and civil liberties to discuss the implications for law enforcement, national security, privacy, and personal freedoms.”
The tech company also offered a criticism of the federal government for having the phone’s iCloud password reset after the attack, which Apple described as a move that forestalled one of the best suggestions it had for accessing the phone’s information.
This particular confrontation centers on an iPhone possessed by Syed Rizwan Farook, a San Bernardino County health worker who, with his wife, gunned down 14 people at a holiday party in December before they were killed in a shootout with police. Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, pledged fealty to the Islamic State, and authorities are still looking into whether the pair had any ties to groups or people operating overseas.
In a letter posted Sunday night, FBI Director James Comey asked people to “take a deep breath” and described the government’s request as quite narrow.
Comey also made explicit what has been otherwise implied by the government’s remarks in legal filings, writing that the government was only focused on seeing whether Farook’s phone can lead investigators to other terrorists.
“Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists,” Comey wrote. “Maybe it doesn’t. But we can’t look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead.”
This dispute spilled into public view last week when the Justice Department sought and received an order from a California judge telling Apple to disable a feature that automatically clears data from a phone after 10 incorrect attempts at entering a password.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook responded to the order by writing a public letter calling the government’s request “chilling” and saying that it demands “something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.”
“They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone,” he said.
On Friday, the Justice Department responded by filing a motion dismissing Apple’s behavior as concerned only with marketing and negative publicity. In its letter Monday, Apple said it was “absolutely not” focused on its business, describing its objections in this case as based on protecting the civil liberties of its users.
The Justice Department’s filing Friday also revealed a previously unreported aspect of the saga: Federal prosecutors noted that while the FBI and Apple had discussed trying to back up the iPhone’s data to an iCloud account as another way to access the phone’s information, this was not possible because the iCloud password had been reset by the county health department.
The letter posted online Monday by Apple said that it had recommended trying to back up the phone by accessing a previously known network and described this as “one of the strongest suggestions” the tech company offered the FBI.
“Unfortunately, we learned that while the attacker’s iPhone was in FBI custody the Apple ID password associated with the phone was changed,” Apple said Monday. “Changing this password meant the phone could no longer access iCloud services.”
A spokesman for San Bernardino County told The Washington Post that the county suggested resetting the iCloud password to obtain data that had been previously backed up. On Dec. 6, four days after the attack, the FBI asked the county to reset the password. The same day, the FBI used a warrant to obtain the existing iCloud backups, which ended on Oct. 19, about six weeks before the attack.
It is not clear why the FBI needed the county to reset the password if it was able to obtain the backed-up data from Apple.
An FBI spokesperson said in a statement over the weekend that even if the password was not changed and the iCloud backup worked, the current confrontation might still have taken place.
“Even if the password had not been changed and Apple could have turned on the auto-backup and loaded it to the cloud, there might be information on the phone that would not be accessible” without Apple’s help, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson noted that “direct data extraction from an iOS device often provides more data than an iCloud backup contains.”
In one of its legal filings, the Justice Department noted that it had found at least one case where the backups were incomplete, stating that Farook had used the iPhone to communicate with Malik for months before the attack, but adding that none of these communications were included in the iCloud backups.
This confrontation could also make its way to Capitol Hill. Members of Congress sent letters to Cook and Comey on Friday inviting them to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, calling the current moment “a critical juncture” in the ongoing debate.
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Mark Berman