Late last night a Twitter account associated with San Bernardino County said that it worked the direction of the FBI to reset Syed Farook’s iCloud password. Why does that matter? Because it would make the FBI liars.
As you probably know by now, the FBI has demanded that Apple break into the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. Apple has refused, insisting that doing so would cause a terrible precedent. But both the FBI and Apple are currently waging a fierce PR battle over one of the possible ways that information from the phone could’ve been retrieved in the early stages of the investigation: Hacking Farook’s iCloud password and causing his phone to push information to the cloud remotely.
In a filing yesterday the FBI claimed that the owner of the phone, San Bernardino County, had been the one who bungled the auto-backup of the phone to iCloud (emphasis mine):
[...] to attempt an auto-backup of the SUBJECT DEVICE with the related iCloud account (which would not work in this case because neither the owner nor the government knew the password to the iCloud account, and the owner, 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 San Bernardino County’s Twitter account (which remains unverified but appears authentic) now claims that it was working under the FBI’s orders. Specifically the tweet said, “The County was working cooperatively with the FBI when it reset the iCloud password at the FBI’s request.”
This statement contradicts both the FBI’s insinuations that San Bernardino County acted alone and the claims made by an anonymous source from the federal government contacted by ABC News. That source said that an IT employee working for San Bernardino County was not instructed by the FBI to attempt a password reset for Syed Farook’s iCloud:
The auto reset was executed by a county information technology employee, according to a federal official. Federal investigators only found out about the reset after it had occurred and that the county employee acted on his own, not on the orders of federal authorities, the source said.
Gizmodo was on a call with Apple executives late last night under strange conditions that there would be no direct quotes and no names. They used the word “government” when referring to who bungled the opportunity to force the back-up to iCloud. At the time, it seemed Apple was referring to the FBI without saying so directly. But Farook’s employer was the San Bernardino Department of Health, which is also a government agency.
This is all independent of the question over whether Apple should be compelled to unlock the terrorist’s 5c phone directly by hacking the passcode. Some have floated the idea that the phone should have been unlocked using the deceased terrorist’s fingerprint, but that wouldn’t have worked for a number or reasons—most importantly, the fact that the iPhone 5c doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner.
We’ve reached out to San Bernardino County for comment and will update this post when we hear back.
Photo: Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook, as they passed through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on July 27, 2014