Feds promise to help local authorities unlock devices

If the requests are "consistent with [their] legal and policy constraints," that is.

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Mariella Moon
April 3, 2016 12:02 AM
In this article: culture, gear, mobile, security
Feds promise to help local authorities unlock devices

The FBI has promised local authorities that it'll help them crack encrypted devices, so long as it's allowed by law, in a letter obtained by Reuters and Buzzfeed News. Just a few days ago, the agency agreed to open an iPhone and an iPod for an Arkansas prosecutor's case. Now the feds are assuring local law enforcement agencies they they've got their backs, as well. "Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints... We are in this together," the missive said.

It's unclear what method the feds plan to use to unlock phones, media players and tablets confiscated as evidence. According to The Washington Post, though, the Department of Justice is debating whether it can legally share the tool it used to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone 5c with local authorities.

If you'll recall, the DOJ went after Apple for several months in an effort to get the company to unlock the shooter's phone. Apple held its ground and parried the feds' demands with strongly worded responses of its own. But in the end, the department dropped its case, because a third-party firm stepped forward to crack the phone's encryption. The DOJ paid that firm a one-time flat fee for the tool it used, the Post said, and chose to make it classified.

Even if the DOJ lends the tool to local law enforcement, it likely won't work for every Apple device and will probably be viable only for a short period of time. It was tailored for an iPhone 5c running iOS 9, after all. Tim Cook and his crew could soon find (and issue a patch for) the hole that allowed feds entry to the phone. That means the agency's fight with Apple could resume at a later time, unless it manages to break through the mobile platform's defenses again and again, with or without help from outside parties.

Here's the full letter posted by Buzzfeed News:

"Since recovering an iPhone from one of the San Bernardino shooters on December 3, 2015, the FBI sought methods to gain access to the data stored on it. As the FBI continued to conduct its own research, and as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention generated by the litigation with Apple, others outside the U.S. government continued to contact the U.S. government offering avenues of possible research. In mid-March, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking the iPhone. That method for unlocking that specific iPhone proved successful.

We know that the absence of lawful, critical investigative tools due to the "Going Dark" problem is a substantial state and local law enforcement challenge that you face daily. As has been our longstanding policy, the FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners. Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints. You have our commitment that we will maintain an open dialogue with you. We are in this together."

Kerry Sleeper
Assistant Director
Office of Partner Engagement

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