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Here's how the FBI plans to crack terrorist's iPhone

Gregg Keizer | March 24, 2016
In turn-about, government now says Apple's help not needed; 'outside party' has likely demonstrated 'NAND mirroring' technique, says iOS forensics expert

Zdziarski declined to name the forensics firms he suspected able to carry out such an examination, but noted that several major vendors had been very tightlipped of late. "There are only a couple which have not denied that they're working on something," he said. Zdziarski also pointed out the FBI's reference to Sunday, which would have been Monday overseas, implying that the forensics firm was not based in the U.S.

In any case, the FBI wanted more time to strike a deal.

"If they liked what they saw, they would need to negotiate a price," Zdziarski said. The red tape and the pressing April 5 deadline would preclude working with an unknown vendor, so Zdziarski assumed that the firm was already on the FBI's contractor list, and like all major players in forensics, already had a chain-of-custody agreement in place with the U.S. government.

Zdziarski has supported Apple in its battle with the FBI, and was one of several prominent iOS security experts who added their names to a friend-of-the-court, or amicus, brief filed earlier this month backing the Cupertino, Calif., company's refusal to help the government unlock Farook's iPhone.

It wasn't a surprise, then, that Zdziarski criticized the government after its 180-degree turn. "They said they had exhausted every attempt," he said, when the FBI went to the magistrate and asked that Apple be forced to assist. "But [on Monday] they admitted that they continued to do research. They weren't completely forthcoming."

Others who have blasted the FBI's attempt to strong-arm Apple echoed that view.

"Now the FBI is acknowledging that its previous statements that only Apple could help may also have been wrong," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which also filed an amicus brief this month.

"This doesn't inspire confidence, and it is yet another reason to resist the government's demands in the larger debate about whether tech companies should be forced to weaken the encryption in their devices to provide for governmental access," Abdo said in a Tuesday post to the organization's blog. "There is an extraordinary consensus among security professionals that doing so would be disastrous for security. The FBI has responded by wishing away the consensus of the technical community. The latest development in Apple's case gives little reason to think that the FBI has the technical qualifications necessary to make this point."

 

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