The FBI doesn’t have to identify the company it contracted to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the 2015 California terror attack that killed 14 people, a federal judge ruled on Saturday (via Politico).
Three news organizations – USA Today, Associated Press, and Vice Media – sued the FBI last year under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to try to force the agency to reveal the name of the company and the amount it was paid to unlock the device.
In the original complaint, the news organizations argued that the public had a right to know how the government spent taxpayer funds in the case. They also claimed the existence of a flaw in the iPhone could be a danger to the public. However, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled this weekend that the information is exempt from mandatory disclosure under the government transparency law.
In her ruling, released Saturday night, Chutkan said the identity of the firm that managed to unlock the iPhone and the price it was paid to do so are classified national security secrets and constitute intelligence sources or methods that can also be withheld on that basis. She also ruled that the amount paid for the hack reflects a confidential law enforcement technique or procedure that is exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
A battle between Apple and the FBI began in early 2016 when Apple refused to help the government unlock shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone 5c under the belief that it could set a bad precedent for security and privacy. The FBI didn’t know what was on the device at the time, but believed that any information gathered could potentially help move the case of the San Bernardino attack forward in meaningful ways.
To break into Farook’s iPhone 5c, the FBI later employed the help of “professional hackers” and reportedly paid upwards of $1.3 million for a tool exploiting a security vulnerability, a figure arrived at based on comments made by then-FBI director James Comey. The agency said it was not able to share with Apple the hacking methods used because it did not own the rights to the relevant technical details regarding the purchased technique.
The FBI has said the method used to break into the iPhone 5c does not work on the iPhone 5s and later, but it can be used to access iPhone 5c devices running iOS 9. It later revealed after the hack that nothing on the phone relevant to the investigation was found.
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