Gun­man’s phone still locked

FBI says it’s ‘work­ing very hard’ to gain ac­cess

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Kevin John­son and El­iz­a­beth Weise

SAN FRAN­CISCO – A sim­ple phone pass­code may be a road­block to more fully un­der­stand­ing the shooter be­hind Sun­day’s deadly church killing, po­ten­tially resur­fac­ing a fight be­tween law en­force­ment, tech com­pa­nies and pri­vacy ad­vo­cates over whether the gov­ern­ment should get a back-door key to un­lock­ing widely used con­sumer de­vices.

The FBI is still work­ing to un­lock Devin Kel­ley’s smart­phone, re­trieved after he shot a con­gre­ga­tion in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 25, in­clud­ing a preg­nant woman whose un­born baby also died, be­fore he was killed.

In Kel­ley’s case, the FBI has Kel­ley’s cell­phone, and a search war­rant al­low­ing them ac­cess has been ex­e­cuted. It has been flown to FBI head­quar­ters in Quan­tico, Va., for anal­y­sis, but so far a foren­sics team has been been un­able to un­lock the phone.

The agency has de­clined to name the de­vice’s brand be­cause it doesn’t want po­ten­tial crim­i­nals to know which phone would of­fer the best pro­tec­tion.

“We are work­ing very hard to get into the phone,” Christo­pher Combs, the spe­cial agent in charge of the FBI’s San An­to­nio bureau, said dur­ing a news brief­ing on Tues­day. “It could be to­mor­row, it could be a week, it could be a month.”

Most cell­phones re­quire users to in­put a four- to eight-digit pass­code to un­lock the phone to pre­vent unau­tho­rized use, some­times also linked to a fin­ger­print. Some phones can also be set to lock down per­ma­nently or even delete the data stored on them if too many at­tempts are made.

Nec­es­sary for crime fight­ing

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials ar­gue that ac­cess to sus­pects’ cell­phones is of­ten a cru­cial com­po­nent of in­ves­ti­ga­tions — but one that’s fre­quently blocked by se­cu­rity tech­nol­ogy.

The FBI has been able to re­trieve data from fewer than half the mo­bile phones it has tried to ac­cess over the last 11 months, di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray said last month at a speech at the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice con­fer­ence in Philadel­phia.

Man­hat­tan Dis­trict At­tor­ney Cyrus Vance has warned that in­ac­ces­si­ble de­vices have thwarted some of the of­fice’s most se­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­clud­ing mur­der and sex crimes.

Vance is ex­pected to dis­close a new count of locked de­vices later this month. Last year, the dis­trict at­tor­ney re­ported that 423 Ap­ple iPhones and iPads had been seized since Oc­to­ber 2014 and have been in­ac­ces­si­ble to in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­cause of de­fault en­cryp­tion.

“Ap­prox­i­mately 10% of our war­rant­proof de­vices per­tain to homi­cide or at­tempted mur­der cases, and 9% to sex crimes,” Vance said last year.

Same is­sues as San Bernardino

The is­sue came to a very pub­lic head last year when Ap­ple and the De­part­ment of Jus­tice spent 43 days locked in a le­gal bat­tle over an or­der from a fed­eral mag­is­trate in Cal­i­for­nia that the com­pany must help the FBI try to get into an iPhone used by San Bernardino gun­man Syed Rizwan Fa­rook.

At is­sue was a fea­ture on the iPhone 5C Fa­rook had been is­sued by his em­ployer that would lock in­ves­ti­ga­tors out if they made 10 un­suc­cess­ful tries to de­ter­mine the cor­rect pass­word.

The FBI de­manded that Ap­ple help it dis­able the lock­ing pro­gram, which Ap­ple re­fused to do on the grounds that cre­at­ing soft­ware to do so would re­sult in some­thing that could po­ten­tially un­lock any iPhone.

“The FBI may use dif­fer­ent words to de­scribe this tool, but make no mis­take: Build­ing a ver­sion of iOS that by­passes se­cu­rity in this way would un­de­ni­ably cre­ate a back­door. And while the gov­ern­ment may ar­gue that its use would be lim­ited to this case, there is no way to guar­an­tee such con­trol,” Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook wrote in a pub­lic blog post on Feb. 16, 2016. In the end, the FBI paid an es­ti­mated $1.3 mil­lion to an un­named com­pany to build a tool that al­lowed it to break into the phone and with­drew its case against Ap­ple.

The agency has de­clined to name the de­vice’s brand. It has been flown to FBI head­quar­ters in Quan­tico, Va., for anal­y­sis.

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