Deja Vu: FBI asks Apple to unlock a terrorist's iPhones

Deja Vu: FBI asks Apple to unlock a terrorist's iPhones
If you've been with us for a few years, you might recall when Apple and the FBI were slugging it out for months over a terrorist's iPhone. It started on December 2nd, 2015 when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 22 while perpetrating a terror attack in the city of San Bernardino, California. The couple was killed by police in a shootout. On February 16th of 2016, a federal court judge ruled that Apple had to help the FBI unlock Farook's iPhone 5c. The device was discovered locked and while the G-men had a valid search warrant for the handset, it did not have the technology available to open it.

Law enforcement was concerned that the phone might contain additional targets and the names of any co-conspirators, which is why Apple was asked to help. But CEO Tim Cook decided that the risk was too great for Apple. Allowing the FBI to open the phone would force Apple to develop a special version of iOS (dubbed GovtOS). Cook and other Apple executives were afraid that if the software got into the wrong hands, every iPhone in the world would be vulnerable. Back then, presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke out against his future pal Tim Apple Cook and said, "It’s ridiculous that the government has to be put in a position where if they have information about a possible attack, we waste a second because that could be the second that kills somebody."

The FBI reportedly paid nearly $1 million to unlock Syed Farook's Apple iPhone 5c


Eventually, the FBI was forced to pay an amount rumored to be a little under $1 million to a third-party (believed to be Israeli firm Cellebrite) to open the phone. Initially, the FBI reportedly found no clues or evidence inside the device, but the last word from the G-men was that the phone did contain some data helping them tie up some loose ends.

Move ahead to 2020 and the FBI once again is asking Apple to unlock a pair of iPhones. NBC reports that these handsets are thought to belong to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the man considered responsible for the death of three men at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida last month. On Monday, FBI General Counsel Dana Boente sent a letter to Apple's general counsel that said in part, "Investigators are actively engaging in efforts to 'guess' the relevant passcodes but so far have been unsuccessful." Boente says that the FBI has asked for help from other federal agencies, experts from foreign countries and "familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community." That latter comment could refer to Cellebrite. Apple has been trying to stay one step ahead of that company and rival Grayshift.


The FBI's difficulties in opening Alshamrani's iPhones seem to contradict a claim made last summer by Cellebrite on its website. The company said that it can "perform a full file system extraction on any iOS device, or a physical extraction or full file system (File-Based Encryption) extraction on many high-end Android devices." Machines like those made by Cellebrite connect to the iPhone's Lightning port in order to bypass limits on passcode attempts. Once the limits are no longer an issue, the machines use a brute force attack (trying every combination possible) to unlock an iPhone.

Apple thought that it had put these companies on the sidelines by adding USB Restricted Mode in iOS 12. This feature prevented the Lightning port from communicating with other devices if it had not been unlocked within the previous hour. But Cellebrite, which sells its devices to law enforcement as Grayshift does, crowed that it could open any iOS device from iOS 7 to iOS 12.3. Assuming that Alshamrani's iPhones were updated before the attack on the naval base, Cellebrite might have met its match with iOS 13 or else the FBI would have already unlocked the handsets.

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17 Comments

1. Gryffin

Posts: 92; Member since: Dec 19, 2018

We all know that all Android and IOS have backdoors for NSA.

2. iushnt

Posts: 3176; Member since: Feb 06, 2013

I don’t know

3. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1226; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

Very interesting, I wonder what iPhones these are now. Must be anything from a 6S up that can run iOS 13. Also, I find it interesting that the FBI are never able to open an iPhone, yet we never hear of them not being able to open an Android, does that mean Google simply bend to whatever the FBI asks them to do?

4. tedkord

Posts: 17512; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

They're able to open any phone. They opened the iPhone without Apple's help last time. There are third parties that can do it, but they charge a lot. They ask Apple first because it's the easier, cheaper way.

5. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1226; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

We never see anything about them having a hard time from Google regarding this though, which is my main point. Even that last iPhone 5C took a whole lot of money and effort before they got through, why are we not seeing the same for Androids? It makes me wonder if Google tend to simply bend to what the FBI want.

9. Charlie2k

Posts: 176; Member since: Jan 11, 2016

Or that criminals use iPhones?

10. blingblingthing

Posts: 986; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

They will be able to access anything if they try hard enough.

14. Vancetastic

Posts: 1881; Member since: May 17, 2017

That's a bit of a leap in logic, I think.

7. senjido

Posts: 11; Member since: Sep 25, 2019

Airpods saves a kid apple watch prevents a crash fbi asks apple to unlock iphone because too secure every year same news Apple is really one of a kind in marketing

8. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1226; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

Indeed. Unfortunately for the FBI even Apple themselves cannot get in to their iPhones as each is encrypted, this is exactly what they told them with the iPhone 5c, which forced the FBI to use Cellebrite. Now it seems Cellebrite’s tool cannot get into an iOS 13 iPhone at this point, otherwise the FBI would have gone straight to the Cellebrite Route.

12. blingblingthing

Posts: 986; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

Even Apple can't get into the iPhone? Lol. I'm pretty sure you said that for all the previous versions of iOS until someone confirmed a bypass. It's always a matter of time before someone bypasses security. Check everything Apple pro, he has put up so many videos of iPhone lock screen bypasses.

13. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1226; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

Lol, well then there’s your answer then, FBI must just watch EverythingApplePro and they will get right in, great logic there mate! You’ve solved the whole thing!

11. blingblingthing

Posts: 986; Member since: Oct 23, 2012

So you believe it's one criminal every few years who commits a crime and they can't access their phone? Or is it more the case that this is one of the rare cases where they can't access it with older methods?

15. Tsepz_GP

Posts: 1226; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

This probably happens to be a criminal who uses a newer more up to date iPhone than the past and he is a higher priority than usual. Older methods work on older devices. All we can do now is wait and see how they manage to get in. But what fascinates me is that with Android we never hear this, so it makes me wonder how easy it is for Google to handover everything from your phone to whoever asks with a badge.

16. Vancetastic

Posts: 1881; Member since: May 17, 2017

Maybe terrorists and criminals only use iPhones. Seems as logical as your assumption.

17. mackan84

Posts: 688; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

Another reason is Apple gives clicks. Juicy news=payday.

18. TS020

Posts: 71; Member since: Feb 16, 2019

Apple can't say no to the FBI because all the FBI has to say is "You do it for China"

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