Did the FBI really need to sue Apple to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone? A report from an internal watchdog suggests no, the agency didn’t.
On Tuesday, the inspector general’s office at the Justice Department weighed in on the FBI’s legal battle with Apple back in 2016 over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.
That phone was eventually unlocked in March of that year with the help of a third-party contractor. But only after the FBI had unsuccessfully tried to pressure Apple into cracking the security around its products.
Tuesday’s report from the inspector general’s office says that federal investigators failed to exhaust every option to unlock the iPhone. An FBI unit chief was actually aware that a third-party contractor was close to developing a solution to unlocking the same model iPhone.
Why didn’t the chief speak up earlier? According to the report, the FBI had a long-standing policy against using classified techniques and national security tools on criminal cases. As a result, the chief hadn’t been involved in the investigation.
Not until Feb. 11 when another FBI section head called for “any kind of solution” to unlock the phone, did the unit chief decide to act and contact outside contractors. The only problem was that by then the FBI was already preparing to sue Apple to unlock the device.
“Our inquiry suggests that (the FBI’s Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit) did not pursue all possible avenues in the search for a solution,” Tuesday’s report said.
The watchdog’s investigation was triggered over whether the FBI had the capability at the time to access the shooter’s iPhone. The inspector general’s office found no evidence of this. The third-party contractor that eventually unlocked the iPhone was initially only 90 percent close to finishing the solution. Nevertheless, miscommunication and a lack of coordination within the FBI delayed the agency from contacting the contractor, the report claimed.
It goes on to say that a senior FBI official became “frustrated” after the third-party contractor became involved, which effectively ended the FBI’s legal battle with Apple.
“He expressed disappointment that the (Remote Operations Unit) Chief had engaged an outside vendor to assist with the Farook iPhone, asking the ROU Chief, ‘Why did you do that for?'” the report said.
The FBI has told the inspector general’s office it’s taking steps to improve coordination among the agency’s teams. That’s included creating a new section devoted to bypassing the encryption around computers and mobile devices.
Tuesday’s report come as the FBI appears to be reviving the encryption debate. The security on mobile phones continues to prevent federal investigator from accessing thousands of devices used in suspected crimes, according to the FBI director Christopher Wray.