FBI unlocking iPhones in other investigations, starting with Arkansas murder

31 Mar 2016

Now armed with a key to the iPhone's encryption, the FBI is using the capability to gather evidence in other investigations

Apple’s worst security nightmare is steadily unfolding as the FBI – now armed with a method for hacking the encryption on iPhone devices – has begun unlocking devices in other investigations, beginning with a murder case in Arkansas.

It has emerged that the FBI has agreed to help prosecutors in Arkansas open up an iPhone and iPod device that may hold evidence in a murder trial.

The devices were owned by two suspects in the slayings of Robert and Patricia Cogdell in Little Rock, Arkansas. Prosecutors asked for a delay in the trial of 18-year-old Hunter Drexler less than 24 hours after news emerged that the FBI was able to access the San Bernardino iPhone without the help of Apple.

Last week, the Department of Justice on behalf of the FBI dropped legal proceedings against Apple to force it to create technology to break the encryption on the iPhone 5c belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino killings in December.

It is understood that an outside firm has provided the FBI with a method to break the encryption on the iPhone. Reports last week pointed to an Israel-based company called Cellebrite, which on its website boasts about its ability to unlock iPhone devices running operating systems from iOS 8 and upwards.

The genie is out of the bottle

The fact that the FBI is now opening up its newfound capability to other investigations around the US  effectively means Apple’s worst security fears are being realised, as there is no guarantee the methodology won’t fall into the wrong hands.

If anything, the development should hasten Apple towards some kind of compromise or close working relationship with law enforcers.

The key here is trust. The promise to guarantee the privacy and safety of users is sacrosanct to the very existence of tech giants like Apple and Google.

Speaking at an event at Trinity College last year, Cook expressed his fears about backdoors being created into encrypted devices.

He told students: “People want to take your data, there are bad governments in the world and bad people in the world and if you leave a backdoor in software there’s no such thing as a backdoor for the good guys only.”

Main image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years