Now that the FBI said it found a way to unlock the iPhone 5c used by a terrorist in the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, Calif., attacks, the agency is moving to assist prosecutors in Arkansas who requested help in unlocking an iPhone 6 and an iPod that are tied to a local murder case.
The FBI's help with the devices in Arkansas was revealed by Cody Hiland, the prosecuting attorney for Arkansas' 20th Judicial District, according to a March 30 story by The Los Angeles Times. Hiland said that FBI officials in the agency's Little Rock, Ark., field office said they will analyze the locked iPhone 6 and iPod to look for information that could be linked to the slayings of Robert and Patricia Cogdell, the story reported. The devices are owned by two suspects in the murder case.
The details of the request for help from the FBI closely follow the recent and very public legal fight that occurred between the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and Apple as the government sought to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the terrorists who killed 14 people and injured 22 others in the attack in San Bernardino. The government wanted Apple's help in accessing and reading the encrypted data on the iPhone, but Apple refused, citing privacy laws.
That California iPhone unlocking case apparently became moot when the FBI announced earlier this week that it had accessed the information on the iPhone without Apple's help. The FBI, which received third-party assistance in accessing the information it sought, has since filed papers to drop its fight against Apple in that case.
"It was not immediately clear whether the FBI planned to use the same method it used to access data on Syed Rizwan Farook's phone," the story reported. Farook and his wife were the terrorists in the San Bernardino attack.
In the Arkansas killings, four suspects, ages 14 to 18, have been charged with the murders, which occurred in the Cogdells' home near Little Rock in July, the Times' story reported. "Prosecutors asked for a delay in the trial of 18-year-old Hunter Drexler on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the FBI said it had successfully gained access to an iPhone 5c that Farook used," the story said.
Arkansas officials obtained possession of the iPod of one of the murder suspects in the last few weeks, Hiland told the Times. "Obviously when we heard that [the FBI] had been able to crack that phone we wanted to at least ask and see if they wanted to help."
An FBI official told the Times earlier this week that "the successful hack of Farook's phone was unlikely to help police win broader access to encrypted data," which has been a vexing problem for law enforcement officials in gathering evidence against suspects. "The process used to gain access to Farook's phone might not work on other devices, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity."
Interestingly, a recent investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that Google also has been facing inquiries from the U.S. government to help unlock Android cell phones as part of criminal investigations, mirroring government actions that have sought similar help from Apple in unlocking its iPhones.
The ACLU investigation discovered that Apple and Google have both been asked by the government 63 times for help in unlocking cell phone data. The requests with Google and Apple were made by the government as it sought court orders under a 1789 law, the All Writs Act, to force the companies to help unlock the phones. The results of those requests are not known, based on the ACLU investigation.
The Google data requests were revealed just after the FBI announced that it was seeking to drop its legal fight with Apple after finding a way to access the iPhone data in the California terrorism case.
In response to an eWEEK email inquiry about the ACLU investigation, a Google spokesman said the company "carefully scrutinize[s] subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law. However, we've never received an All Writs Act order like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products' security. As our amicus shows, we would strongly object to such an order."
The recent end of the government's pursuit of Apple in the latest iPhone unlocking case came after Apple CEO Tim Cook steadfastly refused to order his engineers to create a new software backdoor to access the iPhone, according to an earlier eWEEK story. The FBI wanted to eye the phone's data to determine whether other people were involved in the shootings and if subsequent events were planned.