By: Stephanie Liao

On March 21, 2016, the Justice Department stated that it might not need Apple Inc.’s (Apple) assistance in decrypting an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The last minute filing in the much-anticipated case caught everyone by surprise. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated that they would try to access the data stored on the iPhone used by Syed Farook through alternative means.

On December 2, 2015, fourteen people were killed and twenty-two people were seriously injured in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. FBI investigators have said that the couple responsible for the incident had become radicalized over several years prior to the attack. Further, President Obama deemed the shooting as an act of terrorism. Both shooters were subsequently killed in a shootout with the police. The relevancy to the tech giant, Apple, is the aftermath of the incident. The FBI was able to locate one of the shooter’s iPhone, however, due to Apple’s encryption, was unable to access to the information stored in the phone.

On February 16, 2016, a federal judge ordered Apple to assist the FBI with breaking into the iPhone owned by Syed Farook.[1] However, Apple has declined to offer any help in accessing the iPhone and stated that it “would be impossible” for them to decrypt a device.[2] The FBI is seeking relevant information on who the shooters were communicating with and looking for other possible co-conspirators. The judge ruled that Apple had to provide technical help, including, removing the limit on password tries and bypassing iPhone’s device’s auto-erase function. The order also demanded Apple to collaborate with the FBI to write custom software if needed. On the same day, Apple CEO Tim Cook replied in a rare public statement stating that the company won’t be complying with what it calls an “unprecedented” order.[3] Tim Cook pointed out that engineers who have worked on the security and the encryption of the iPhone would now have to work to weaken those same protections. Consequently, it allows the FBI a “backdoor entry” into the iPhone, setting a dangerous precedent and putting consumer data at risk.

Just a few days after the hearing postponement on March 21, several news outlets reported that Cellebrite, an Israeli mobile Forensic software company, is assisting the FBI in unlocking Syed Farook’s iPhone.[4] If the report holds true and if Cellebrite is able to unlock Syed Farook’s iPhone, the FBI would no longer need the assistance of Apple.

As the heated discussion circles around privacy and crime, it is also important to note the potential business and governmental regulation implications. Apple claimed that if they were to effectively create a “backdoor” to its products without any guarantee that such “backdoor” would only be used by the “good guys,” it might eventually lead to abuse of power. If such precedent is set and the requests become routine, the risk of such a technology being used by the wrong people would significantly increase. It remains to be seen if Cellebrite can successfully assist the FBI in decrypting Syed Farook’s iPhone.


[1] In the Matter of the Search of an Apple Iphone Seized During the Execution of a Search Warrant on a Black Lexus IS300, California License Plate 35KGD203, No. 15-0451M, 2016 WL 680288 (C.D.Cal. Feb. 16, 2016).

[2] Nate Raymond, Apple tells U.S. judge ‘impossible’ to unlock new iPhones (Oct. 20, 2015), available at (last visited Mar. 27, 2016).

[3] James Vincent, Time Cook: Apple will fight US demands to build an iPhone backdoor (Feb. 17, 2016), available at (last visited Mar. 27, 2016).

[4] Tova Cohen, Israeli firm helping FBI to open encrypted iPhone: report (Mar. 23, 2016), available at (last visited Mar. 27, 2016).

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