FBI blacks out most details on hack of terrorist's iPhone

SAN FRANCISCO — A heavily redacted Friday evening data dump by the FBI revealed almost nothing about how the agency was able to break into the locked iPhone of one of the gunmen in the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

The Justice Department released close to 100 pages of records in response to a lawsuit by USA TODAY and two other news organizations.

The suit, filed on September 16, 2016, sought information about how the agency was able to break into a locked iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook. The 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.

The suit asked the source of the security exploit agents used to unlock the phone, and how much the government paid for it. The FBI had refused to provide that information to the organizations under the Freedom of Information Act. Gannett, the parent of USA TODAY, the Associated Press, and Vice Media filed the suit.

The Justice Department spent more than a month last year in a legal battle with Apple over whether it could legally force the tech giant to help agents bypass the security feature on Farook's phone. 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.

Friday's data release included dozens of pages of contracting boilerplate but no information about the source of the exploit or its cost. The FBI indicated in the records that both of those details are classified. FBI Director James Comey intimated during a public forum last year that the price was more than $1 million.

The documents did show that after the FBI’s clash with Apple became public, at least three other companies expressed interest in cracking the phone, even though none of them had by that point started developing a tool that would have allowed them to do so.

The redactions were extensive, including the blacking out of the date on which the FBI got the internal green-light to proceed with the contract and clean air and water certifications filled out by the contractor and others.

USA TODAY


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