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On December 2, 2015, two individuals walked into a company holiday party at the Inland Regional Center at San Bernardino, CA, and opened fire on the 80 or so employees in the room. Fourteen people were killed and another 21 were injured. The suspects, who died later in a shootout with police, were identified as Syed Rizwan Farook, an employee of San Bernardino County, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. Although their motives remain unclear, the attack is being investigated as an act of terrorism, due to Malik’s expressed support of the Islamic State.
The FBI began an investigation immediately after the attack. They forced entry into an apartment that had been rented to the suspects and confiscated a stockpile of weapons as well as all computer and electronic equipment in the apartment. The couple had smashed two of their cell phones to the point that investigators were unable to pull any information off of them. The FBI did, however, uncover an iPhone 5C, which was identified as Farook’s work phone.
Farook had put a 4-digit password on the phone, and his employer had installed special security software that, if someone were to get ahold of the phone and attempt to break the password, would delete the phone’s information after a certain number of unsuccessful attempts. The FBI’s investigation had led them to believe that Farook might have had direct communication with the victims of the deadly spree, and that they would find that evidence on his work phone. Because of the potential risk they face by attempting to guess the passcode, the FBI decided instead to ask Apple to write code that would allow them to bypass the security feature and unlock the phone.
Apple refused their request.
While it may seem, on the surface, that Apple is being uncooperative with the authorities and shutting down what could be a big lead in a case that has shocked the United States, their motive for rejecting the request is to protect their customers. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook issued a statement to their customers explaining what the FBI had asked Apple to do, and why they felt they couldn’t comply with the request. In his statement, Cook explained that the FBI asked them to build a back door to the iPhone, or rather, “a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation.
In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.” Apple does not even allow itself to have access to its customer’s phones, citing that customers store large amounts of personal data on their phones and rely on Apple to keep up with the latest security and encryption features to keep their data safe from internet scammers.
While the FBI has stated that they do want the software written, they went on to assure Apple that it would only be for this one phone, this one time. They claim that they would not even have access to it, that Apple would be the only ones in possession of the software, and the FBI would never get to use it. Apple disagreed, explaining that writing the software is a dangerous first step, because it could only take a sophisticated hacker a few tweaks to figure out how to make it work for other phones, too.
In response, the FBI attempted to compel Apple to write the software using the All Writs Act of 1789M, which essentially gives the Supreme Court the right to force companies to comply with their requests concerning their investigations. Apple thinks this usage will create a problem for customers, saying, “[i]f the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data.
The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.” Apple also said that the FBI’s promise to use the software just this one time for this one phone is a claim that the FBI can’t back up, which could lead to them making similar requests in the future.
Recently, the FBI discovered a way to circumvent the iPhone’s password and has dropped its case against Apple. However, it’s important to have conversations about the government’s reach into our private lives, and how far we’re willing to let them go. While we need the FBI to investigate terrible tragedies like the San Bernardino shootings and to bring justice to the victims, we have to remember that we also have rights as citizens, and we must make sure our rights are protected from those who behave unjustly, even if it is the federal government.
If you have been charged with a crime and you believe you experienced unjust treatment, call the Columbus federal crime attorneys at Luftman, Heck & Associates today at for a free and confidential consultation.