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San Bernardino Shooter’s Apple Password Changed While in Government Possession

"While the FBI is demanding massive changes in how Apple protects your privacy," explains Van Buren, "none of those changes would even be necessary if anyone on the government side understood how iCloud works."

They lie like a rug.

In an attempt to convince Americans that having encryption and password-beating backdoors installed on their electronics so the government can snoop, the FBI first claimed the evil ISIS terrorists who shot up San Bernardino found a way to “beat” all of the resources of the NSA and lock down their iPhone to prevent further plots from being discovered. Lives were at risk, so the Fourth Amendment be damned!

That wasn’t really true.

It turns out, as the Justice Department acknowledged in its court filing, that the passcode of shooter Syed Farook’s iCloud account had been reset by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, “in an attempt to gain access to some information in the hours after the attack… but that had the effect of eliminating the possibility of an auto-backup.” A federal official familiar with the investigation confirmed that investigators were indeed in possession of the phone when the reset occurred.

So, OK, it wasn’t the darn terrorists who did it, it was the dumb hicks at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. Well, nonetheless, it wasn’t the FBI’s fault, so the FBI should be given the hacking tools needed to access all iPhone everywhere forever, or, maybe, something might happen again someday somewhere. At least with things in the FBI’s hands, such dumb mistakes wouldn’t happen.

Only that wasn’t really true either.

There's something in the air...

It turns out it was in fact the best of the best, FBI investigators seeking to recover data from the iPhone, who demanded a technician in the County Department of Public Health to reset the phone’s iCloud password. “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,” a spokesman for San Bernardino County said in an email. Except that wasn’t true or accurate and they screwed things up further by trying something dumb.

So here is what is true.

Apple could have recovered information from the phone had the Apple ID passcode not been changed under orders from the FBI, Apple said. If the phone was taken to a location where it recognized the Wi-Fi network, such as the San Bernardino shooters’ home, it could have easily been backed up to the cloud. The FBI then lied about whose incompetence lead to the mistake.

In other words, while the FBI is demanding massive changes in how Apple protects your privacy, none of those changes would even be necessary if anyone on the government side understood how iCloud works. And these guys want us to believe we can trust them with our data, and indeed, our freedom.

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His new book is We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).

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