Apple Tried To Help FBI, But The Password Got Changed In Government’s Hands

An Apple executive yesterday pointed out a piece of information that was contained in an extensive government filing about the San Bernardino terrorist investigation – that county government officials could have inadvertently undermined their ability to access the data on the iPhone 5C used by terrorist Rizwan Farook, according to The executive noted this finding in a U.S. Attorney filing earlier in the day as the company faces an unusual court order to rewrite the iPhone firmware, thereby creating a “backdoor.”

The firmware the court wants Apple to create would remove a possible automatic wipe feature if a passcode is entered incorrectly ten times and would also eliminate a delay between passcode efforts intended to make brute-force entry harder.

Apple Fights Government ‘Overreach’

In complying with this order, Apple would permit the government to enter PIN codes in fast succession until gaining access to the phone. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, has said it will resist this attempt which he calls a major “overreach.” A hearing is scheduled for March 22, 2016 in Riverside, Calif.

In Friday’s call, an unnamed Apple executive said the company has worked with the FBI in the investigation. Apple proposed one last attempt to recover about six weeks of data locked on the phone.

The purpose was to force the phone to auto-backup to Farook’s iCloud account. Apple, with a legal order, can and does turn over iCloud data. Farook, for unknown reasons, had not backed up the phone for about six weeks before the attack. The Apple executive said the company does not know if the auto-backup was or was not disabled, but prior iCloud backups the company provided to investigators were sporadic.

Apple Cooperates With The FBI

Apple suggested the FBI plug the iPhone 5C into a wall and connect it to a known Wi-Fi network and leave it overnight. The FBI then took the phone to the place of Farook’s employment prior to the attack, the San Bernardino Health Department.
Apple was surprised when the attempt failed, but then discovered the Apple ID account password was changed shortly after the phone came into law enforcement’s custody. This change could have been made by a county health department employee. Because it was not possible to enter the new password on the locked phone, auto-backup could not be attempted. An iCloud auto-backup would have easily allowed Apple to assist the investigation.

The Apple executive said the company released this piece of information on Friday since it previously believed it was under a confidentiality agreement with the government. Apple now apparently believes the agreement is void since the government raised it in the public court filing.

Because the iCloud backup could not be tried, the Justice Department asked a judge to order Apple to re-write the firmware.

Also read: White Hat iOS hacker advises Apple in its FBI battle

Create An iPhone ‘Backdoor’?

The Apple executive said there is extensive interest in an iPhone backdoor, pointing out that Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, said on Thursday that his office has 175 Apple devices he would like to crack, according to

The executive further noted that no other government, including Russia or China, has asked what U.S. prosecutors have asked Apple to do this week.

The House Committee on Commerce invited Apple CEO Cook and FBI Director James Comey to testify on the encryption issue on Friday.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

Lester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.