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FAQ: Everything we know so far about Apple's battle with the FBI

Susie Ochs | Feb. 23, 2016
This is a complicated case that could stretch on for months, but we'll keep this updated as more news breaks.

So it’s a little weird that the FBI wants us to believe that once Apple builds this tool to assist law enforcement to brute-force a passcode, that it wouldn’t be used again. Even if that particular software image file was never shared and promptly destroyed, the courts could use this case as precedent to order Apple to build it again.

But the government says that this software doesn’t ever have to leave the Apple campus—what’s wrong with that?

The government claims that Apple can retain total control over the software, and even the device itself. Reads the February 19 filing, “the Order permits Apple to take possession of the subject device to load the programs in its own secure location, similar to what Apple has done for years for earlier operting systems, and permit the goverment to make its passcode attempts via remote access.”

But since Apple is being asked to create a tool for law enforcement to use, that tool would have to stand up to scrutiny if any evidence collected with it is ever used in court. Jonathan Zdziarski’s excellent blog post “Apple, FBI, and the Burden of Forensic Methodology” explains this really well. Zdziarski has extensive experience in iOS forensics, working with law enforcement and testifying as an expert in court.

He explains that tools used by law enforcement to collect evidence are legally known as “instruments,” and for evidence collected by such tools to be admissable in court, the court as well as the defense must have confidence that the tools are accurate and their results reproducable. New instruments—a breathalyzer, a speed-detecting radar gun, or a software tool like this one—have to be tested and validated by a third party like the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) or NIJ (National Institute of Justice), and generally accepted by the scientific community. That’s why breathalyzer tests are admissable but polygraphs are not.

Zdziarski also explains how before iOS 8, when Apple could still extract unencrypted data from a locked device, this was seen as a lab service, not an instrument. In that case, Apple would have to demonstrate to the court (usually through expert testimony or an affadavit) that it had the expertise to run the test, but it could claim “trade secrets” to avoid detailing the exact methods. But when it’s law enforcement carrying out the method itself, the standard is different.

Now, just because evidence collected by use of this tool might not be admissable in court doesn’t make that evidence worthless. Law enforcement could learn something about Farook on his iPhone that they could then verify through other means that are admissable.


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