Media Want FBI Records on Terrorist IPhone

     (CN) — In a federal complaint Friday against the FBI, three news outlets say there is a public interest in learning how investigators overcame Apple’s resistance to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook.
     The lawsuit comes six months after the government announced that it had accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone — bringing an anticlimactic end to a divisive battle on digital rights.
     After Farook and his wife killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, the FBI said there was no way for it to unlock Farook’s iPhone without running the risk that too many incorrect password guesses would trigger Apple security features, wiping the phone’s contents.
     Before the FBI managed to crack through with help from a third party, Apple bristled over bigger privacy issues at play and said helping the government would require it to build an entire new operating system.
     The Associated Press, USA Today and Vice Media say in their complaint that they each filed requests with the FBI this spring to learn about that third-party tool, including its cost.
     “The FBI’s purchase of this tool allowed government access to Mr. Farook’s phone, providing new information about one of the deadliest attacks on American soil in recent years, but also apparently failing to reveal any evidence of links between Mr. Farook and foreign terrorists or terrorist organizations,” the 14-page lawsuit states. “At the same time, the tool sparked tremendous nationwide debate about both the proper balance between national security and privacy in personal communications, and the degree to which law enforcement should be empowered to compel access to encrypted and protected devices.”
     The Associated Press says the government’s success also shed light on an “undisclosed security vulnerability” in “one of the most popular consumer products in the world.”
     Jay Ward Brown, an attorney for the news outlets, said in a telephone interview that the public has a right to know more about the vendor and how much the government had paid it.
     “The reporters are not seeking details of the law enforcement investigation or details of the perceived links to terrorism,” said Brown, of the law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz. “Nothing about the request should interfere with law enforcement investigation of this particular incident in San Bernardino or any other terrorism investigation. But it does seem that as we debate possible legislation and other public policy on these issues of security and privacy that the public ought to know who our government is dealing with.”
     FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said he could not comment on pending litigation.
     Noting that the unidentified third party could be holding “potentially dangerous technology without any public assurance about what that vendor represents,” the Associated Press says that it would like to know more about whether vendors were “hackers with suspect reputations” and how secure the tool is.
     “Information about the FBI’s contracting arrangement would also ensure transparency about the expenditure of public funds,” the complaint states. “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.”
     U.S. District Judge Sheri Pym had ordered Apple to assist FBI technicians working on Syed Farook’s iPhone 5C but vacated her order after the FBI said it had unlocked the phone.
     Within weeks, reporters with the AP, USA Today and Vice made requests. The FBI denied all of them, however, citing an exemption that allows agencies to withhold information if it is part of an ongoing investigation.
     In April, FBI Director James Comey declined to specify how much the government had paid the vendor but said it was more than he would earn during the remainder of his time as director.
     Based on Comey’s salary, that led the press to conclude the agency paid more than $1 million.
     Apple has not returned requests for comment by phone and email on Friday.

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