Apple's admission matched what the DOJ said in a motion filed Friday, and what security experts said was possible earlier.
The government has contended that there may be information on Farook's iPhone that will help in the terrorism investigation, but he locked the device with a passcode. The FBI wants Apple to create a modified version of iOS that disables an auto-erase feature and removes the forced delays between passcode guesses. It would then conduct a brute-force passcode crack from a personal computer at high speeds.
"In plain English, the FBI wants to ensure that it can make an unlimited number of PIN guesses [and] that it can make them as fast as the hardware will allow," said Dan Guido, co-founder and CEO of Trail of Bits, a New York City-based security firm, last week.
On Sunday, FBI Director James Comey issued an online statement where he said Apple owed it to the San Bernardino victims, their families, and survivors to help in the probe of the iPhone. "Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't. But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don’t follow this lead," Comey said.
Comey also said neither Apple nor the FBI should set policy related to privacy and national security. "[This case] does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure -— privacy and safety," Comey wrote. "That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before."
Some, including Cattanach, say that the FBI purposefully selected the San Bernardino case -- with its terrorism implications -- to get a court to order Apple to help under the All Writs Act and sway public opinion its way. "This was a very strategic decision by the FBI," said Cattanach. "I think it was very calculated on the part of the FBI: 'Let's get a win here.' "
Apple has faced similar demands from the government under the All Writs Act, as the ACLU noted. In fact, the Cupertino, Calif., company first signaled its concern about the law last October, when the DOJ asked a federal court in New York to force Apple to assist in accessing an alleged drug dealer's iPhone.
Even after the defendant pleaded guilty, Apple argued that the matter was not moot, and that the issue about Apple's assistance should continue to be heard by the court. "Apple has also been advised that the government intends to continue to invoke the All Writs Act in this and other districts in an attempt to require Apple to assist in bypassing the security of other Apple devices in the government's possession," wrote Marc Zwillinger, an outside lawyer for Apple, in a letter to the New York court on Feb. 12.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.