Three news organizations, including USA TODAY’s parent company, filed a lawsuit Friday seeking information about how the FBI was able to break into the locked iPhone of one of the gunmen in the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
The Justice Department spent more than a month this year in a legal battle with Apple over it could force the tech giant to help agents bypass a security feature on Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone. The dispute roiled the tech industry and prompted a fierce debate about the extent of the government’s power to pry into digital communications. It ended when the FBI said an “outside party” had cracked the phone without Apple’s help.
The news organizations’ lawsuit seeks information about the source of the security exploit agents used to unlock the phone, and how much the government paid for it. It was filed in federal court in Washington by USA TODAY’s parent company, Gannett, the Associated Press and Vice Media. The FBI refused to provide that information to the organizations under the Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit charges that “there is no lawful basis” for the FBI to keep the records secret.
The San Bernardino attack by Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 22 others. Malik pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as the attack began. Shortly after the attack, FBI agents tried unsuccessfully to access Farook’s iPhone as they searched for other ties to the terror group. The agency told lawmakers that they had been stymied by the phone’s security features.
In February, a federal magistrate judge in California ordered Apple to write new software for the FBI that would allow agents to bypass a security feature that would lock the phone after 10 incorrect attempts to guess its passcode. The order prompted a 43-day legal battle between Apple and other giants of the tech industry against the Justice Department. Apple CEO Tim Cook called the order “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.”
The legal fight came to an abrupt end in March, when Justice Department lawyers notified the judge that an outside party had come forward with a way to bypass the phone’s security. The FBI, prosecutors wrote, “no longer requires the assistance from Apple.”
The FBI has not said who provided the exploit or how much it paid. FBI Director James Comey intimated in April that the price had been more than $1 million. He later said the security exploit was “well worth” the high price.
Comey has said that the exploit “works on a narrow slice of phones,” and probably would not be useful for unlocking anything other than an iPhone 5C running the operating system iOS 9, the type of phone Farook used.
USA TODAY, the AP and Vice all sought records from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act that would identify the source of the hack and how much the government paid. The FBI denied each of those requests, saying, without explanation, that revealing the records would imperil its enforcement efforts.