News Organizations Refocus FBI Lawsuit to Question Cost of San Bernardino iPhone Hack Tool

A trio of news organizations -- consisting of the Associated Press, Vice Media, and Gannett -- have petitioned a judge in the United States to force the FBI to reveal the exact amount of money it paid for the technology used to crack open an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook (via BBC).

The same group of news organizations sued the FBI last September to gain more information about how exactly the FBI entered the iPhone, what "outside party" helped with the process, and how much the government paid for it. The new filing appears to tone down that original lawsuit with a focus on the amount spent on the hack tool, and not how it works or who exactly provided it.


Although the FBI never confirmed the rumors, it was widely reported that Israeli mobile software developer Cellebrite was hired to get into Farook's iPhone 5c. A price for the developer's services has only ever been speculated upon.

According to the court filing acquired by the BBC, the three news organizations claim that there is "no adequate justification" for the FBI to continue to withhold the information related to the cost of opening the iPhone. The information they ask for is also specified as not a risk to national security if it does become public, as they simply want "to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the event."
"While it is undisputed that the vendor developed the iPhone access tool, the government has identified no rational reason why knowing the vendor's identity is linked in any way to the substance of the tool, much less how such knowledge would reveal any information about the tool's application," lawyers for the news organisations wrote in the filing to the US District Court in Washington.

"Release of this information goes to the very heart of the Freedom of Information Act's purpose, allowing the public to assess government activity - here, the decision to pay public funds to an outside entity in possession of a tool that can compromise the digital security of millions of Americans."
Back in the midst of the story's development, the identity of the contractors for the iPhone hack was said to be a closely held secret within the FBI, with FBI director James Comey even in the dark as to who exactly was hired to break into the iPhone. While many reports referenced Cellebrite, another suggested it was instead done with the help of "professional hackers," consisting of a "gray hat" researcher who sells flaws to governments, black market groups, or companies that create surveillance tools.

Even though the case is still one of interest among both parties, towards the end of the drama last year the FBI claimed that it found "nothing of real significance" in Farook's iPhone, stating that it answered a few questions about the San Bernardino shooting but provided no new leads.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.



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32 months ago

We deserve to know how the government can hack into our phones because it's unconstitutional to begin with.


As much as I dislike governments eroding privacy this case was absolutely NOT unconstitutional as they had a legal warrant for entry into the phone in question. I tend to be on the extreme in my support of privacy but it doesn't help anyone's cause to be inaccurate in statements.
Rating: 9 Votes
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32 months ago
Ugh, the iPhone C was the biggest abomination, and don't get me started on those cases!
Rating: 5 Votes
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32 months ago

Also, big props to Tim Cook for arguing the case tooth-and-nail to prevent an iOS backdoor.


But but but shouldn't he rather be spending time pushing out new Mac Pros for a vocal minority, instead of protecting our basic rights?
Rating: 5 Votes
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32 months ago
We deserve to know how the government can hack into our phones because it's unconstitutional to begin with.
Rating: 3 Votes
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32 months ago

We deserve to know how the government can hack into our phones because it's unconstitutional to begin with.


No, it isn't.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized


The FBI had a legal warrant signed by a judge instructing Apple to assist in recovering data on the phone. And IIRC, the phone in question was owned by Farook's employer, who gave consent to a search of the phone. Nothing unconstitutional about it.



Also, big props to Tim Cook for arguing the case tooth-and-nail to prevent an iOS backdoor.


The only reason an iOS backdoor was not implemented was because the FBI found another way in and withdrew their case. Tim Cook's grandstanding notwithstanding, nothing was resolved, and it is likely that the same issue will arise again in the future.
Rating: 3 Votes
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32 months ago

We deserve to know how the government can hack into our phones because it's unconstitutional to begin with.


It was more than likely hacked using NAND mirroring to input the passcode as many times as possible. The same technique can't be used on a 5S or later, which corresponds with what was leaked about the firm's capabilities.

It would also have been jolly expensive based on time alone.

Also, big props to Tim Cook for arguing the case tooth-and-nail to prevent an iOS backdoor.
Rating: 3 Votes
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32 months ago

I'd say there's a lack of precedent for the government to even think about insisting upon such a software feature. That would be in Apple's favor.

Not to mention the fact that Apple has incredible deep pockets and can afford to keep such a trial tied up in appeals for many years.


And how would the government otherwise get access to this information without Apple's help? Apple essentially declined to help for business reasons, irrespective of the fact that people died. If your wife, daughter, or mother was kidnapped and gang-raped and the phone of one of the perps was recovered, would you not want to know what was on that phone? With new encryption technologies, I'm certain a judge would require Apples assistance, precedent or not.

And Apple may have deep pockets, but the government's are deeper. And given how President Trump assessed the situation, calling Apple out on their refusal to help, it's not crazy to think Congress would pass a law requiring tech companies assist in situations like this. The phone companies already do this.
Rating: 1 Votes
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32 months ago

"A legal warrant signed by a judge?" You have any idea how easy it is to get one of those?


Tell me.
Rating: 1 Votes
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32 months ago

No, it isn't.



The FBI had a legal warrant signed by a judge instructing Apple to assist in recovering data on the phone. And IIRC, the phone in question was owned by Farook's employer, who gave consent to a search of the phone. Nothing unconstitutional about it..


Of course I know that in this case it was legal to search the phone. But the government having the ability to hack into any phone is a scary thought, and I'm afraid it could be abused
Rating: 1 Votes
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32 months ago

Right. I'm sure you believe that, Perry Mason. :rolleyes: Pray tell, on what basis was the FBI going to lose this case?


We can't know for sure how a particular judge might have ruled, and the Supreme Court unfortunately hasn't provided a great deal of clarity when it comes to when the All Writs Act can be applied. The best guidance we have probably still comes from U.S. v New York Telephone.

That said, the government was quite likely to lose. To answer your question: Among other possible bases, on the basis that what the government wanted Apple to do would represent an unreasonable burden. Ultimately the order was effectively vacated on the basis that the government failed to meet the necessity requirement, so we'll never know for sure whether this particular judge would have found in Apple's favor on the unreasonable burden question.
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Tell me.


An ex parte order like this one on behalf of the government? Fairly easy.

It's based not on the judge finding for one side or the other in an adversarial proceeding, but rather on only one side telling the judge what it wants. So long as what the government says is reasonable on its face, the order that the government asks for (and often frames itself) is likely to be grant. That's why such an order isn't really enforceable until the other party - the party that wasn't involved in the proceeding - gets to make its case why the order shouldn't be issued, i.e. why the government shouldn't get what it wants. It's why this particular order invited Apple to contest the order if Apple thought it wasn't lawful, which is what Apple did. The judge understood that she was only getting one side of the story, so to speak, and that the order might not be proper. But standard procedure is to issue the order and then let the affected party challenge it if they wish to.

We aren't talking about a party just being asked to comply with a warrant. Apple cooperated and turned over what it had access to. A third party turning over information - e.g., phone records - pursuant to a warrant (or just a subpoena) is one thing. It's another thing entirely for an innocent third party to be forced to do some work - e.g., to create some new product or do some in-depth analysis of data that the government has - for the government. The All Writs Act allows for that under certain circumstances, but it isn't a blank check that allows the government to force third parties to do whatever it wants whenever it feels that is necessary for it to do its own job.
Rating: 1 Votes
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