The Associated Press, Gannett, and VICE Media are suing the FBI to know more details about the agency’s hack of the San Bernadino killer’s iPhone.
Readers may recall the case of the encrypted iPhone from last December’s San Bernadino shootings. The locked iPhone, which was issued to one of the shooters by his workplace, managed to rekindle an age-old debate about government versus consumers in computer security, with some in the government community advocating universal backdoors into all technology.
For its part, Apple made clear to all that it was unable to actually get into an encrypted iPhone, and further that even if it were able, it would be unwilling. In unrelated cases, federal judges have ordered the company to comply with government requests to interfere with the encryption it offers to its own customers.
In the case of the San Bernadino iPhone, the government was essentially asking Apple to task its employees with the job the FBI. Openly flouting the government proved a well-received move by Apple – at least by its employees and the tech community at large. The case drew so much attention that then-aspiring Libertarian presidential candidate and computer security pioneer John McAfee famously boasted that he would break into the iPhone for the government free of charge. McAfee later admitted, however, this was merely a publicity stunt.
Then, one day in March, the government stopped demanding that Apple help it crack its own encryption or bypass its security measures. The FBI announced that someone had helped them get into the phone and retrieve the missing data. Now exactly who helped them and what ends were achieved as a result of the charade remains unknown to the public, many months later. A group of three major media organizations including the Associated Press and Gannett, who own the likes of USA Today, find this lack of information unacceptable and are suing the government to know these remaining details. The joint suit’s Freedom of Information Act request reads, in part:
Understanding the amount that the FBI deemed appropriate to spend on the tool, as well as the identity and reputation of the vendor it did business with, is essential for the public to provide effective oversight of government functions and help guard against potential improprieties.
To date, the government has said very little about the contents of the device, the cost of the tool which suddenly helped the FBI, or who provided it. FBI director James Comey has snarkily told reporters that the tool cost more than he will make in his remaining years as a government employee, but the lawsuit alleges that there is no legal basis for the FBI to withhold the information. It is a wonder that Apple itself had not previously filed the request itself, being the most concerned party of all in terms of who has the ability to crack
It is a wonder that Apple itself had not previously filed the request itself, being the most concerned party of all in terms of who has the ability to crack encryption on a model of its phone (iPhone 5C with iOS 9) that still enjoys moderate popularity in the wild.
Perhaps most disconcerting about the whole event is the conclusion that no actual helpful data was present on the device when the FBI did finally gain access. This means that the privacy rights of Americans and American businesses were called into question over what amounts to a false alarm – no security would have been gained in exchange for essential liberty, as the saying goes.
It is the tendency and some might even say the duty of federal police agencies to press against constitutional safeguards which make their job harder. It can reasonably be expected they will always do this. At the same time, it is the job of the press to be the watchdogs of the society and to sound the alarm when government overreaches. In this case, that is exactly what the Associated Press, Gannett, and VICE Media are doing.
Images from Shutterstock and iStock/400tmax/Nastco.