Encryption

Report: FBI Officials Dragged Feet Breaking into Terrorist's Phone to Try to Force Apple to Weaken Encryption

A political battle following the San Bernardino attack was the result of an attempt to make a test case.

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Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik
Customs and Border Protection

Remember when the FBI went before a judge to demand that Apple break its own encryption and force access into a terrorist's iPhone? A newly released report from the Justice Department suggests that the bureau may have deliberately avoided alternative solutions in order to go to court and create a precedent.

The case involved a locked work iPhone in the possession of Syed Farook, one of the terrorists responsible for killing 14 people at a San Bernardino Christmas party in 2015. When the FBI asked Apple to help them break into the phone, Apple refused, arguing that doing so would render all their customers vulnerable to intrusion. The bureau eventually gained access with the assistance of a third-party contractor.

Cybersecurity and privacy experts speculated that the FBI was deliberately trying to create a precedent for forcing tech companies to weaken their encryption on demand. An inquiry by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice should fuel those concerns further.

The purpose of the Justice Department's investigation was to determine whether then–FBI Director James Comey spoke accurately in February 2016, when he testified before Congress that the FBI was unable to unlock Farook's phone. The report concludes that Comey was telling the truth at the time. But it also highlights a fair amount of foot-dragging. (The FBI waited til mid-February before looking for outside assistance in unlocking the phone.) The chief of the cryptographic unit, it concludes, did not want a third-party solution. The chief wanted to use the case to force Apple's compliance:

[Executive Assistant Director Amy Hess] became concerned that the [Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit] Chief did not seem to want to find a technical solution, and that perhaps he knew of a solution but remained silent in order to pursue his own agenda of obtaining a favorable court ruling against Apple. According to EAD Hess, the problem with the Farook iPhone encryption was the "poster child" for the Going Dark challenge.

"Going Dark" is law enforcement jargon used to describe their inability to bypass encryption and cybersecurity tools to engage in surveillance or access data of targets of investigation.

The chief apparently became frustrated when the third-party solution undercut the legal challenge, reportedly asking another official: "Why did you do that for?"

Apple was put under enormous political pressure to comply with the FBI. Donald Trump, then still a presidential candidate, called for a boycott on Apple. Other GOP candidates demanded that Apple cooperate with the feds. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R–N.C.) crafted terrible legislation that would require tech companies to follow the feds' demands that they weaken their cybersecurity. The bill failed, fortunately.

During that whole public fight, some FBI officials were deliberately trying to fail. All to sell a narrative that they had no choice but to make Apple weaken its own security—and yours as well.

Read the inspector general report here.

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  1. Do we have a Birther/Truther-type name for Trumpites conspiracy theorizing ways to discredit Comey and the FBI? Because add Scott S. to the list as one of them.

    1. This Omar Mateen’s dad being an FBI informant thing is about to turn me into one of the crazy conspiracists. Like wtf. How is this not major news?

      Obama, Lynch, the media, and Democrats tried as hard as they could to make it about evil Republican homophobia this entire time, despite the absurd amount of evidence suggesting otherwise. And now, similar to when those Muslims shot up Pamela Geller’s event, we learn the FBI had close contact and connections with the terrorist?

      Remember when his dad, still probably an FBI informant at the time, while also apparently funneling money to terrorists in the Middle East, sat behind HIllary at a rally three weeks after, and nobody gave a shit?

      It’s like they’re begging for conspiracies, and the more the press continues to ignore every story that could possibly make Obama or Hillary look bad, everything will get a lot worse.

      1. Look up the instances where FBI successfully foiled terrorist plots.
        They almost all consist of FBI hearing about some malcontent, sending a UC to befriend him then encourage him to act on his beliefs, do all the planning for him and offer supplies (usually explosives), convince him not to desist from plan, then bust him as he goes to get offered weapons.
        Not sure what entrapment technically is, but that sounds pretty close.
        Sometimes, like in Garland, the UC doesn’t act in time.

        1. Episode 6 of Electric Dreams…

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    2. It’s not conspiracy theorizing. Anyone knowledgeable with this kind of encryption knew this all along. The FBI was needlessly dragging Apple into a legal showdown. They wanted a back door in everyone’s phones rather than going to the trouble of cracking the phone.

      It is the digital equivalent of the FBI demanding that Ma Bell record all phone calls so they don’t have to go to the trouble of getting warrants to tap phone lines.

      What happens when uncrackable encryption gets into the consumer sphere? What then? Some wonks suggest banning the encryption, but that’s as unrealistic as thinking one can prevent shootings by banning guns.

      1. Meh. They will just make you unlock your phone for events like re-entering the US at the immigration counter. You could choose not to, but then you and/or your phone will spend some quality time in a small room.

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      2. Well Brandy, you’re a fine girl, but if you actually knew what the fuck you were talking about:

        There was never any trouble getting into the phone, there was never a need to get into the phone. Nobody was ever ‘cracking’ anything, that’s just bullshit detail on an entirely bullshit story.

        They had the account password, and after Apple defending themselves from FBI slander, reported the iCloud account was logged into shortly after being taken into possession at the crime scene. Not only did they login, they then changed the password. Look it up.

        Now based on actual facts, the real question should be: was the FBI faithful in preserving the evidence they found on the phone/account? Given recent track record, I would guess not if this individual had previous contact or was on their radar.

        1. I wasn’t aware of that.
          This information is rather… sinister.

    3. Are you claiming the Inspector General, appointed by Obama, is a Trump supporter?

  2. Imagine how much better of a place we would be in if the entire field of journalism in America didn’t refuse to do anything for 8 years because they voted for Obama and didn’t want to report on anything that might make his administration look bad.

  3. A newly released report from the Justice Department suggests that the bureau may have deliberately avoided alternative solutions in order to go to court and create a precedent.

    No shit. When are they going to release the report that J Edgar may have done one or two things that were a little on the shady side?

  4. Government is almost always dishonest.

    Film at 11.

    Oops, film was confiscated.

  5. Every libertarian should know how to use Veracrypt to encrypt their hard drive.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VeraCrypt

    P.S. Ubuntu users don’t need to know how to use Veracypt–because they don’t need to use Veracrypt. They can just select encryption when they’re installing the OS.

    P.P.S. Windows is for grandmas and people with educational impairments.

    1. Law Enforcement is pissing in the wind on encryption. There is no way to keep encryption out of the hands of the public or to ensure that what does get out has some magic backdoor for law enforcement. Law enforcement needs to wake up and face that reality and learn how to investigate cases without the benefit of the case being solved thanks to someone’s computer.

      1. It’s important that average people use it, too. The more, the better.

        I shudder to think how much time, effort, and money they’d have to spend just to get my project proformas and email from my friends and family.

        And that’s the way it should be.

        Get an encrypted email service–with their only servers in Switzerland. Use a VPN outside of the 14 eyes countries–that keeps no logs. Use it for everything. Encrypt your hard drive.

        They started sifting through our emails and phone calls because it became technologically possible and stopped being prohibitively expensive. They’ll do the same at the border for the same reasons. Using free software to change that equation closer back to the way it used to be is one way libertarians can help make America great again.

    2. Windows is for people who like to use their computer for common applications and gaming. If you want some really good encryption use paper in an ignitable file cabinet.

      1. Windows is for people who need to use AutoCAD.

        Even then, it’s best used within Qubes.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qubes_OS

  6. They could have broken into the thing without going to court but chose not to. Then they turned around and lied to both the Courts and the public saying not only could they not get into the phone but that it was of paramount importance that they get into the phone as soon as possible. So, either they put the country at risk by not getting into the phone as soon as they could or they were lying and didn’t really need to get into the phone. Either way, their behavior is disgraceful.

    1. Why solve one crime when you can weaken privacy protections for every person in the country?

      1. And weaken them for a purpose that is a lie. They knew how to get into the phone. So, why do you need to precedent other than FYTIW?

  7. “During that whole public fight, some FBI officials were deliberately trying to fail. All to sell a narrative that they had no choice but to make Apple weaken its own security?and yours as well.”

    Perjury is still a federal crime–even when the FBI does it–right?

    1. “”Perjury is still a federal crime–even when the FBI does it–right?””

      Perjury is a function of government so I don’t think so.

      To me this was never more clear than when James Clapper lied to Congress, then told Congress he lied to them and Congress did absolutely nothing about it. I guess Chuck Schumer was right when he expressed his fear of the intel agencies when he said something like they can fuck you six ways to Sunday.

      1. But if they told the judge there was no other way for them to get into the phone other than for the judge to force Apple to help them with the encryption algorithm–and they knowingly decided not to try other options–then they lied to a judge.

        If congress is too chickenshit to stand up for themselves, that’s one thing. If I were a judge and someone from the FBI lied through their teeth to me like that, I’d want to put their asses in a sling. I’d want somebody to answer for that.

        Make a mockery of me and my court and get away with it? No friggin’ way.

        1. “” If I were a judge and someone from the FBI lied through their teeth to me like that, I’d want to put their asses in a sling.””

          Agreed. Same if I was a judge.

          But Judges regularly do nothing when lied to by government officers. Most anyway. If that wasn’t true, we would be having different conversations regarding warrant applications, parallel construction, and FISA court.

    2. re: Perjury is still a federal crime – Yes, but this might not have met the legal definition. First, it’s only perjury if the statement is made while under oath. We’d have to double-check the records but I don’t believe he was under oath at any of the specific times he made those statements. Second, it’s not perjury if it’s a statement of opinion. Some of his statements could plausibly be interpreted as opinion, not fact. Third, even if you are willfully avoiding knowing something, you still don’t know it and can say so.

      Hmmm.. Too many negatives in that last point. Let me try by example. “Did you see A kill B?” “No.” “But you were in the same room, you heard the shot and you have blood spattered all over your clothes. A and B were the only other people in the room. How could you not see it?” “I closed my eyes.” Even though you willfully acted to not know, your original answer was not perjured.

      re: “even when the FBI does it” – Well, this one is more complicated. There are some situations where they are allowed to lie. This probably wasn’t one of them. But even when the police do lie, the principle of qualified immunity protects them from essentially all attempts to hold them accountable. All the judge in this case could do is cause them to lose the one case – a moot point now and even if it weren’t, no deterrent at all in the next case.

  8. So the real story here is that the Apple iPhone can be broken into regardless of it’s encryption? Way to bury the lede since I think everyone at the time realized that Comey and the FBI was intentionally setting up a test case.

    1. I figured that Apple’s encryption was not great and the government was feigning inability to crack it.

      I figure it was a ploy to get people to move data, the US government wanted to unconstitutional seize, from better encrypted platforms.

      1. Which, in short, means that there isn’t a good guy in this fight since both Apple and the government lied about the encryption. Apple is less of a bad guy, I guess, but that doesn’t make them ‘good’.

    2. Only if you believe the FBI when they said they “got in”.

      1. Bingo.

        Apple reported that someone had logged in to the iCloud account associated with the phone at a time, shortly after when the feds started searching the terrorist’s House. And the password was then subsequently reset (which requires the old password). The FBI confirmed they reset the password.

        For anyone using an iPhone with iCloud, the stored data sets are almost entirely the same. And even if the cloud device backup features were disabled, if they had the password, they could turn that back on, back up everything, then have a historical copy to clone on as many phones as they want.

        Then they started a PR campaign to create a panic and malign an American corporation, just to compliment their toolkit for political blackmail operations.

        There was never a time when the FBI story about this, wasn’t 100% bullshit.

  9. I think this theory is pretty solid because it took the FBI all of about 5 minutes to crack the phone once they ran into resistance.

  10. More evidence that Comey was/is a shitbag that deserved to get thrown in the trash.

    1. Flush Comey in the toilet if you want; don’t pollute the landfills with biohazards. I’m not sure, but I think the EPA regulations call for hazmat incineration.

  11. Cybersecurity and privacy experts speculated that the FBI was deliberately trying to create a precedent for forcing tech companies to weaken their encryption on demand.

    Do they also speculate that the sun raises in the east?

    (However, given the speed that the FBI shows in responding to subpoenas, I suspect that actually do not have the computer skills to crack a straight letter substitution code.)

  12. I’d show you my shocked face, but nothing our benevolent overlords in the government surprises me anymore.

  13. File this under “D” for duh! The FBI so transparently avoided other solutions while focusing on getting Apple to comply it was laughable. Third parties came out of the woodwork claiming to be able to crack the phone but were largely ignored. I remember people wondering why they didn’t just press the dead guy’s finger to the phone. I’m still unclear as to why that wouldn’t work.

    1. I remember, his phone didn’t have the finger print feature.

    2. Because it was an Iphone 5c which does not have a fingerprint sensor.

  14. If this is true, then Apple should consider an application to have a government refund it’s legal fees to the extent the government argued that it it had an emergent immediate need to force Apple to crack it’s own security system.

    1. Because, in that case, the FBI’s litigation was frivolous

  15. The bureau eventually gained access with the assistance of a third-party contractor.

    Bullshit. Either it was encrypted and nobody was getting access, or it wasn’t encrypted and they had the means to get in all along.

    1. They logged into the iCloud account associated with the device minutes after taking the phone into evidence.
      Encryption was never even a factor in this investigation.

    2. I’m guessing the third party contractor set them straight and told them to stop looking at jacking with the phone: clone it [bit copy style], and brute force anything they wanted on a virtual machine where it didn’t matter – but they already knew that. A four digit [base 10] code only has 10k combinations, but a six digit has a million and requires computing power to crack in short order. Our government has enough computing power to do that all day long if the focus is genuine. The only question is… since the FBI’s game was a ruse, should we be asking where the Russians were? That does seem to be the soup du jour, these days. Where was this information tool they tried to extract from Apple destined to go? Obama did sign off on a radical expansion of inter-agency “sharing” order his last year in office [aka license to leak/prevent discovery until well after the election, if at all]. Between that and the hundreds of positions added to the NSA, it is not reasonable to assume that tool [had Apple created it] was not going to be in the wild inside of a year. The bureaucracy was re-structured to leak, and this would have been a sure casualty.

  16. The FBI = Failure By Ideal.
    in order to further political goals. Same reason the did nothing with the Boston bombers same reason they ran fast and furious same reason they let Cruz shoot up a school. for the political purpose of gun control and the ability to search everything.

    I don’t have time to list all the criminals and killers the FBI knew of but did nothing. If they are to do nothing then what are they doing or why are they doing nothing but standing by and watching?

  17. Congratulations, Reason Magazine. This is THE least surprising thing I have heard all freakin’ week.

  18. Thank you Apple for defending privacy. And now the IG for exposing the complete disregard for privacy by our corrupt FBI.

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  20. Only if you believe the FBI when they said they “got in”.

    1. And now the IG for exposing the complete disregard for privacy by our corrupt FBI.
      azhar.eg

  21. Pamela Geller has objectivist agitprop plastered all over her website. Does anyone here expect mystical looter prohibitionist republicans to lift a finger to do her any good? More likely they sent the berserkers over to shoot up the art contest up as a win-win proposition.

  22. False arguments were obvious from the onset. They didn’t send the phone to apple along with a court order, they wanted software. When Apple gave directions/provided its initial assistance, and the FBI chose not to follow them, it seemed clear that they wanted to force not the cracking of a device, but a custom built information warfare weapon out of the company without cause or remuneration – and no safeguards to prevent it from being cloned/distributed to other agencies down the road. It was an attempted hijacking of intellectual property, clearly aimed at adding to a toolbox useful for… evading having to go get a courts approval, and it would just be a matter of time before it found its way into foreign hands. Normally, if an agency has an intelligence need the matter is handled off the media grid, so there was another important secondary goal: set/harden precedent for stealing the work of a company at will. Does the FBI give a crap about the 13th amendment? Apparently, training there is much like the military: after being sworn in, the constitution is never mentioned again, and all else is dispensed except for the business of following the orders of the president.

  23. solusi lain sembari memusatkan perhatian untuk membuat Apple mematuhi aturan itu menggelikan. Pihak ketiga keluar dari kayu yang mengklaim dapat memecahkan telepon tetapi sebagian besar diabaikan. Saya ingat orang-orang bertanya-tanya mengapa mereka tidak hanya menekan jari pria yang mati itu ke telepon. Saya masih belum tahu mengapa itu tidak berhasil.

  24. solusi lain sembari memusatkan perhatian untuk membuat Apple mematuhi aturan itu menggelikan. Pihak ketiga keluar dari kayu yang mengklaim dapat memecahkan telepon tetapi sebagian besar diabaikan. Saya ingat orang-orang bertanya-tanya mengapa mereka tidak hanya menekan jari pria yang mati itu ke telepon. Saya masih belum tahu mengapa itu tidak berhasil.

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