The FBI reportedly asked San Bernardino County officials to tamper with the iCloud account of one of the suspected shooters in last December's attack, in an effort that ultimately failed—making it impossible to know if there were other ways of recovering encrypted information without taking Apple to court.
Late Saturday night, San Bernardino officials contradicted the FBI's claims as to who was at fault for a bungled effort at recovering Syed Farook's private data from six weeks before the attack, stating that it complied with the agency's orders to reset Farook's iCloud password.
That effort only worked to prevent an auto-backup of the data the FBI sought, rendering the information "permanently inaccessible."
Apple executives said that means there may have been a way to avoid the momentous privacy battle currently underway between the tech company and the government.
The Washington Post reports:
In the chaotic aftermath of the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, FBI investigators seeking to recover data from the iPhone of one of the shooters asked a technician in the California county to reset the phone’s iCloud password.
But that action foreclosed the possibility of an automatic backup to the Apple iCloud servers that might have turned up more clues to the origins of the terrorist attack that killed 14 people.
“The county and the FBI were working together cooperatively to obtain data, and at the point when it became clear the only way to accomplish the task at hand was to reset the iCloud password, the FBI asked the county to do so, and the county complied,” David Wert, a spokesman for San Bernardino County, said in an email.
The FBI admitted this mistake in a legal filing late Friday night, but deflected blame away from the agency, stating, "the owner [San Bernardino County], in an attempt to gain access to some information in the hours after the attack, was able to reset the password remotely, but that had the effect of eliminating the possibility of an auto-backup..."
But a Twitter account associated with San Bernardino County said otherwise.
"The County was working cooperatively with the FBI when it reset the iCloud password at the FBI's request."
The County was working cooperatively with the FBI when it reset the iCloud password at the FBI's request.
— CountyWire (@CountyWire) February 20, 2016
Wert added, "[t]he county said we could get to the information on the cloud if we changed the password or had Apple change the password."
"The FBI asked us to do that, and we did," he said.