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FBI asked Apple to unlock iPhone before trying all its options

When the FBI asked Apple to unlock a terrorist's iPhone, the agency said it had no other way. It turns out the bureau barely looked, says a DOJ report.

An iPhone

The DOJ's Office of the Inspector General said the FBI didn't exhaust all its options to unlock a terrorist's iPhone before asking Apple to help.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

The FBI made more of an effort to get Apple to unlock a terrorist's iPhone than it did trying to open the device on its own, according to a Justice Department report.

The DOJ's Office of the Inspector General noted in its report (PDF) the FBI 's Cryptologic and Electronics Analysis Unit (CEAU), which cracks mobile devices, didn't start looking at outside methods to open the iPhone until just before Feb. 16, 2016, the day the FBI sent a court order to Apple demanding help. 

In testimony to Congress, then-FBI Director James Comey said the bureau had no other option than to ask Apple for help cracking the iPhone 5C of a terrorist who killed 14 people in a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. An FBI department chief knew a vendor was "almost 90 percent finished" with a solution for breaking into the locked iPhone before reaching out to Apple, according to the report.    

The FBI's request culminated in an intense standoff between Apple and the bureau, which tried ordering the tech company to build a backdoor that would've allowed the government to unlock the iPhone. The case set up a legal battle between security and privacy.

Apple declined to comment on the report. The FBI didn't respond to a request for comment.

In December 2015, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, his wife, shot up a regional center during a holiday party. The FBI found Farook's iPhone 5C and wanted to search it for information on the terrorist attack. That led to the FBI demanding that Apple unlock the device because the agency said it couldn't do it on its own.  

"The FBI's leadership went straight to the nuclear option -- attempting to force Apple to circumvent its encryption -- before attempting to see if their in-house hackers or trusted outside suppliers had the technical capability to break in to the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. "It's clear now that the FBI was far more interested in using this horrific terrorist attack to establish a powerful legal precedent than they were in promptly gaining access to the terrorist's phone."

The agency dropped its order just a day before the FBI and Apple were due to go to trial. The FBI had spent almost a million dollars on an outside vendor that was able to crack open the phone. The Inspector General's report said the CEAU chief didn't want to use this solution, according to testimony from FBI Executive Assistant Director Amy Hess.

Hess "became concerned that the CEAU 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," the report said.

Despite Hess' concern, the report said no one in the FBI withheld any knowledge, but the CEAU chief was "frustrated that the case against Apple could no longer go forward."

The Office of the Inspector General wrote that its investigation suggests the FBI didn't look at all its possible options, including with the outside vendors.

After an outside vendor demonstrated it could unlock the iPhone without Apple's help, the CEAU chief confronted the FBI official who coordinated the effort, and asked, "Why did you do that for?"

The watchdog's report concluded that the FBI was telling the truth in its testimony to Congress and its court filings but that there were multiple miscommunications among the agency's rank and file that lead to issues.

The FBI told the Inspector General's office that it was addressing the miscommunication issues, according to the report.

First published March 27, 1 p.m. PT.
Update, 2:17 p.m.: Adds comment from Sen. Ron Wyden.

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