A federal judge has ordered Apple Inc. to provide software to the Justice Department to help it unlock a phone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack because investigators suspect the device may hold critical details of the plotting behind…
A federal judge has ordered Apple Inc. to provide software to the Justice Department to help it unlock a phone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino, Calif., terror attack because investigators suspect the device may hold critical details of the plotting behind the mass murder.
The order, reflected in legal filings unsealed Tuesday, involves a phone once used by Syed Rizwan Farook and marks a pivotal moment in the highest-profile and possibly highest-stakes confrontation in the long-running argument between Washington and Silicon Valley over privacy and security.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said early Wednesday that the company would oppose the judge's order saying it was an "unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers" with "implications far beyond the legal case at hand."
Law-enforcement agencies say companies such as Apple make it harder to solve crimes including terrorist attacks, child abuse and murder by putting security measures on phones that make it difficult or impossible for investigators to open them and examine data inside.
The industry argues that strong security is needed to protect customers from hackers and government spying.
This fight between the government and the industry has been going on for more than a year, largely over the issue of encryption, which is being used more widely in smartphones and other devices.
The San Bernardino case centers on the work phone of Mr. Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik is suspected of having opened fire at a holiday party of county workers on Dec. 2, killing 14 people and injuring 22. Both Mr. Farook and Ms. Malik were killed in a shootout with authorities later that day.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym granted the Justice Department's request for help unlocking the phone.
Tuesday's court action is a potentially important step "in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack," Eileen M. Decker, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, said in a statement.
The legal fight over the phone revolves around its passcode but is also part of the broader fight over encryption. At issue, according to the filing, is the numeric passcode protection system Apple uses to prevent people from simply guessing the right password.
A number of security measures—including a permanent disabling of the phone after 10 unsuccessful tries at the password—have kept agents from reviewing the contents of the phone, according to the filing. When the phone is locked, the data is encrypted.
The phone is actually owned by Mr. Farook's former employer, San Bernardino County. The county has given investigators permission to search the phone, but county officials don't know Mr. Farook's passcode, according to federal prosecutors.
"Despite both a warrant authorizing the search and the phone owner's consent, the government has been unable to complete the search because it cannot access the iPhone's encrypted content," the government filing says. "Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily."
Such passwords became much more important in 2014, when Apple and Google Inc. said they were adding encryption schemes to their operating systems that the companies say they can't unlock. When an iPhone user sets a password for a device, the data is encrypted when the phone is locked. Apple has said it doesn't keep the passwords and can't open a phone once it is locked.
The Justice Department believes Apple has the technical means to bypass the security features, which should allow investigators to keep guessing the password until they guess correctly, but so far the company has refused to do so, the filing says.
There may be critical evidence on the phone, the government argues in the filing, because the data wasn't backed up to cloud storage for a month and a half before the attack.
"Evidence in the iCloud account indicates that Farook was in communication with victims who were later killed during the shootings perpetrated by Farook…and toll records show that Farook communicated with Malik using the subject device," the filing says.
"Farook may have disabled the automatic iCloud backup function to hide evidence," it adds. "There may be relevant, critical communications and data around the time of the shooting that has thus far not been accessed, may reside solely on the subject device, and cannot be accessed by any other means known to either the government or Apple."
The filing also says San Bernardino County officials have told investigators the automatic backup feature was turned on when the phone was given to Farook. Before Oct. 19, backups occurred "with almost weekly regularity," it says.
James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said last week at a congressional hearing that there was a phone from the San Bernardino investigation his agents still couldn't access. He didn't elaborate, but Tuesday's legal action offers a far more detailed accounting.
The San Bernardino case isn't the first time such issues have gone to court, but by placing the legal fight over encryption at the center of the investigation into the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. since the 2001 attacks, Tuesday's action is likely to overshadow previous cases.
In New York, federal prosecutors and Apple have been engaged in a monthslong standoff over similar issues in a drug case. In that matter, a federal judge has yet to rule on whether the government can use a 225-year-old law called the All Writs Act to force companies to unlock a suspect's phone. The government is citing the same federal law in the San Bernardino case.
Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed to this article.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires 02-17-160135ET Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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