While a feud between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed headlines during the past two months, it turns out the issue behind the stand-off is nothing new. According to a report published today, the tension between the two over unlocking iPhones dates back eight years.
In 2008, a federal judge ordered Apple to assist the government in unlocking an iPhone used in a child sex abuse case, the Wall Street Journal reported. At that time, Amanda and Christopher Jansen, a husband and wife from Watertown, N.Y., were under investigation for possession of child pornography, as well as for allegedly drugging and raping three of their children.
After the couple was arrested in September 2008, authorities found an iPhone belonging to the pair in a diaper bag. At the time, Apple not only complied with an iPhone unlocking request, it helped prosecutors draft the court order requiring it to do so. According to the Wall Street Journal, evidence of the couple abusing the children was found their iPhone. The pair pleaded guilty to federal charges in October 2009 and were sentenced to life in prison without parole the following year.
The Watertown, N.Y. case appears to be the first time in which the All Writs Act -- also used in the case of Farook's iPhone -- was used to justify a phone unlocking request. That federal statute authorizes U.S. federal courts to issue any writs necessary or appropriate in the name of enforcing the law.
Encryption Changed Everything
According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple has helped federal agents access more than 70 handsets over the years. That became far less easy once Apple started default encryption in its phones as part of the iOS 8 mobile operating system.
While investigating the San Bernardino, Calif. shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, the FBI asked Apple to unlock Farook’s iPhone 5c. That would have forced Apple to write new code so the FBI could bypass encryption protections and access data on Farook's device. On December 2, Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out a shooting that left 14 people dead. The pair was shot dead by police later that day.
Apple refused a court order requiring it to help the FBI, but the agency was eventually able to crack Farook’s iPhone without Apple's help. Even so, the FBI has said that the method it used to unlock the phone wouldn’t work on most devices. At a speech he gave in Ohio this week, FBI Director James Comey said the agency employed a third-party tool that applies exclusively to an iPhone 5c running iOS 9. Comey said the tool wouldn’t work in the iPhone 5s or on any of the iPhone 6 models.
Won’t Be the Last Time
According to Comey, discussions with Apple about how to handle future requests related to phone unlocking are ongoing, but the FBI is afraid that Apple will re-encrypt its phones, causing the agency to start from scratch the next time it needs to unlock an iPhone.
The FBI has has not yet decided whether to share the tool it used to unlock the iPhone 5c with other law enforcement agencies. It did recently demonstrate the process to some U.S. senators.
The increased use of phone encryption by tech companies came in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosure about a wide-ranging government surveillance program.