Harry Potter fiction or iPhone weaponry? The 'dormant cyber pathogen' at the heart of Apple vs. FBI

The battle over unlocking an iPhone tied to a terrorist attack takes a turn for the baffling.

Katie Collins
Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
2 min read

The FBI vs. Apple latest: Harry Potter fan fiction confusion.


Why should Apple unlock the much-disputed iPhone at the center of its battle with the FBI? It may hold a "dormant cyber pathogen," according to a court filing from the district attorney for California's San Bernardino County.

That certainly sounds scary, but what is a dormant cyber pathogen exactly?

iPhone forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski, who knows a fair bit about computer science and information security, was just as baffled as the rest of us. The phrase doesn't exist in computer science, according to Zdziarski. So, he went in search of answers.

What he found was "what appears to be Harry Potter fiction," Zdziarski reported in a blog post on Thursday. His search led him to the profile of a fan-fiction fan who goes by the name of "Cyber Pathogen" and describes themselves as a Demigod from Gryffindor.

In the court filing, County District Attorney Michael Ramos says the dormant cyber pathogen might be a weapon that could trigger an attack on the San Bernardino County computer network.

It's just the latest twist in the ongoing battle between Apple and the FBI over an iPhone 5C used by one of the terrorists involved in a December massacre in San Bernardino, in which 14 people died and 20 others were wounded.

A court hearing to determine whether Apple should be forced to comply with the FBI's request is set for March 22 in federal court in Riverside, California.

Apple and the San Bernardino district attorney's office couldn't be reached for comment.

Read our full story on the district attorney's filing in support of the FBI and check out all of our Apple vs. FBI coverage.