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DOJ report: FBI had sued Apple without exhausting all options for unlocking iPhone

DOJ report: FBI had sued Apple without exhausting all options for unlocking iPhone

According to a report released by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), it turned out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had moved to have a court order Apple to unlock a certain iPhone unit owned by a terrorist being investigated for the 2015 San Bernardino attacks, before considering all the available options at that time. In other words, it appears that the FBI may have misled just about everybody when it said that they could not find another way to gain access to the iPhone unit under investigation.

While delivering his testimony to Congress, James Comey, then director of the FBI, had stated that the agency had no other option but to ask for Apple’s assistance in unlocking an iPhone 5C unit used by a terrorist who fatally shot more than a dozen people in the city of San Bernardino in California back in December 2015.

But as it detailed in its report, the DOJ found some inconsistencies with Comey’s claims. For example, a senior engineer at the FBI had known that a certain vendor was nearly 90 percent done with developing a solution that would unlock the terrorist’s iPhone. If the agency had simply waited (perhaps in a month’s time), there might have been no need to request for Apple’s help at all.

Of course, we all know what happened -- Apple and the FBI went on to participate in a legal battle that would further fuel the privacy versus national security debate. In March of 2016, the charges against Apple would be dropped, while the FBI would go on to hack into the terrorist’s iPhone without Apple’s assistance, but with the help of a third party.

And while it is true that what the DOJ has found is ultimately moot (because the charges against Apple were dropped), it is sort of worrying for an entirely different reason. The FBI’s actions during the investigation does seem to suggest that it was not willing to exhaust all alternatives before resorting to legal action. While this does not necessarily paint the agency as diabolically evil, it does help in making people even more untrusting of the FBI (and by association, the US government). 

There is no end in sight with regards to the debate over security versus privacy. Both may have thrown compelling arguments, but also exhibit possible faults in their respective perspectives. But when one side appears to show signs of not playing fair, the healthy debate is in danger of becoming a circus.