Though the FBI claimed for months it was only concerned with unlocking the iPhone of the suspected San Bernardino shooter in its legal battle with Apple, the bureau just agreed to help Arkansas prosecutors break into an iPhone and iPod belonging to two murder suspects.
"This case was never about one phone," Evan Greer, campaign director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future, told Common Dreams on Thursday. "It was always about the FBI's pursuit of a dangerous precedent that would have made us less safe, not more safe."
The bureau told prosecutors late Wednesday that it would help them unlock the devices, less than a day after the initial request from Faulkner County prosecutor Cody Hiland, according to the Associated Press. Four suspects, ages 14 to 18, have been charged in the July murder of Robert and Patricia Cogdell, just outside of Little Rock.
Prosecutors asked for a delay in the trial of one of the suspects after the FBI announced it was able to unlock the iPhone of alleged San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook.
"The iPod had just come into our possession a couple of weeks ago," Hiland said. "Obviously when we heard that [the FBI] had been able to crack that phone we wanted to at least ask and see if they wanted to help."
It is unclear what methods the FBI will use to break into the devices in the Arkansas case, as the bureau has refused to disclose how it unlocked Farook's phone. Andrew Crocker, an attorney with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times that agents would face the same challenges accessing the data, regardless of the model.
The FBI announced Monday it had managed to break into Farook's phone after months of attempting to force Apple to create software that would decrypt the private information stored on the device.
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The tech company has maintained that building such code would endanger its users and enable the government to dangerously expand its authority, but the FBI consistently countered that argument by claiming that it would not exploit the precedent by using the software in other cases, and that Apple was jeopardizing national security by refusing to assist the bureau in unlocking a suspected terrorist's phone.
Privacy advocates disagree.
Regardless, Crocker told the LAT that the Arkansas case was not analogous to San Bernardino. "In a criminal case, if the FBI uses a technique, there's going to be questions about divulging that technique or chain of custody to the defense," he said. "So my instinct is this might be something different."
As Common Dreams has previously reported, the FBI may be subject to a little-known process called the "equities review," which was created by the Obama administration to assess whether security flaws should be disclosed. It is unclear yet whether that review will be used in these cases.
"It's disturbing to watch the FBI operate with such impunity," Greer said. "They blatantly misled the public and the court and now they're not even trying to hide it."
"We need a grassroots movement to hold our government accountable for this," she said.