A decision to reset the password on an iCloud account tied to one of the San Bernardino attackers did not effectively thwart the investigation into the shooting, FBI officials said in a court filing Thursday as part of the Justice Department’s ongoing encryption dispute with Apple Inc.
FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress last week that “there was a mistake” made when the FBI asked San Bernardino County, which owned the phone, to reset the password for an account tied to Syed Farook, who along with his wife killed 14 people in the December 2 shootings.
But in a sworn declaration Thursday, Chris Pluhar, an FBI agent involved in processing the evidence, said the password reset did not make a difference. Farook’s iPhone, which was found powered off, had the iCloud backups turned off for his mail, photos and notes, and aren’t believed to be complete, Pluhar said. Even with a full set of backups, the Justice Department said, the government would still have needed to search the phone “in order to leave no stone unturned” in the investigation.
The statement is aimed at rebutting earlier claims from Apple that said that if the FBI had not changed the iCloud password, its engineers could have helped investigators use a known — and therefore trusted — wireless connection to trick the iPhone from automatically backing up to iCloud.
“In short, Apple is not some distant, disconnected third party unexpectedly and arbitrarily dragooned into helping solve a problem for which it bears no responsibility,” Justice Department lawyers wrote. “Rather, Apple is intimately close to the barriers on Farook’s locked iPhone because Apple specifically designed the iPhone to create those barriers.”
“Everybody should beware because it seems like disagreeing with the Department of Justice means you must be evil and anti-American, nothing could be further from the truth,” Apple senior vice president and general counsel Bruce Sewell said in a conference call with reporters.
The government also rejected Apple’s arguments that the software — intended to bypass an auto-erase function on the phone so that the FBI can remotely enter different passcodes without losing data — violated Apple’s First Amendment rights by forcing it to create new computer code.
“Apple’s claim is particularly weak because it does not involve a person being compelled to speak publicly, but a for-profit corporation being asked to modify commercial software that will be seen only by Apple,” the brief states.