The FBI has denied multiple reports that it was assisting Arkansas authorities in unlocking an iPhone 6 connected to a double murder. The first of those reports, published Wednesday night, claimed that the FBI had agreed to help Little Rock authorities unlock an iPhone 6 and iPod connected to the deaths of Robert and Patricia Codgell, who were killed by four teenagers.
The stories speculated that the FBI would use the same technology it used to crack the iPhone 5C used by San Bernadino, California, shooter Syed Farook. Yet the FBI denied this Thursday, claiming the Little Rock FBI field office had received the request, but it had not yet determined if it could provide any help at all.
“At the time of the request, no information was provided regarding the device models or operating systems, so FBI Little Rock was not able to state whether they would be able to provide assistance,” FBI spokesman Peter Carr said in an email. “The FBI does not currently have possession of the devices.”
Moreover, the FBI said the “handling of this request is not related to the San Bernardino matter.”
In the wake of the FBI’s claim that it had obtained the capability — through a third party — to unlock the encrypted iPhone, attention turned to the thousands of iPhones, iPads and iPods sitting in evidence rooms around the country. Would the FBI share this newfound capability with local jurisdictions, and if so, would that mean that Apple would become less cooperative with law enforcement in general?
The FBI regularly assists local law enforcement on technical issues, including encrypted devices, but the idea that it now has the capability to unlock an iPhone could potentially involve the federal government in hundreds of local cases.
D.J. Rosenthal, former director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said the decision to use the technology on other iPhones, whether in support of federal investigations or in local investigations, would likely go all the way to the White House. “Whatever decision the FBI takes they are going to go through major policy efforts through the Department of Justice in consultation with the White House,” he said. “This is not a willy-nilly decision.”
Moreover, Rosenthal said it would be highly unlikely that the FBI would share this technique with local law enforcement without first sharing it with Apple. “The more the FBI deploys the technique, the more Apple can exert pressure on the FBI to share that technique with them,” he said. Widespread use increases the risk of the “vulnerability finding it’s way into the wild.” And that would boost Apple and the public’s interest in having the vulnerability patched.
For their part, local jurisdictions aren’t holding their breath that the FBI now holds the skeleton key for iPhones. “It’s not realistic,” wrote Joan Vollero, spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. “The only workable solution from our perspective is federal legislation.”
“The overwhelming majority of criminal investigations stalled by default device encryption will remain so until Congress intervenes,” Vance said in a statement earlier this week.
The idea that the FBI keeps this method a secret seems dubious, however, since Cellebrite, the company thought to be assisting the FBI, sells its services to more than 200 retailers and 15,000 law enforcement and military users, according to its website.