FBI misleads public with iPhone assertion

Mike Hashimoto
Mike Hashimoto

It must please the FBI to no end to have to endure Twitter trolling from Edward Snowden over its U-turn on demanding Apple hand over the keys to its iPhone encryption.

Of all people, right? Snowden is the former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower whose knowledge, background and stolen documents have pulled back much of the curtain on government secrecy.

The FBI, remember, insisted it had exhausted all known techniques and still could not bypass Apple encryption to crack into the iPhone 5c used by Syed Farook of the husband-wife terrorist team that shot up an employee celebration in San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI was able to get U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to rule against Apple. The FBI insisted it wanted access to only one phone, but Apple argued it has no electronic key to surrender and so must build one, which it says compromises security for every encrypted iPhone.

One phone, in the interest of national security, sounds OK. A key that unlocks all phones, regardless of anyone’s assurances, sounds less OK.

And what are FBI assurances worth? Just this week, after insisting to a federal court that this investigative task was impossible without Apple’s acquiescence, the FBI called a timeout.

“An outside party” had come forward to show the FBI what its own people, apparently, had not discovered. This was revealed only hours before a widely anticipated hearing on Pym’s original order.

Snowden has been saying for some time that the FBI was mistaken in its contention that Apple had the “exclusive technical means” of breaking into this phone.

Now, he has taken to Twitter to say he told us so.

“They exploited trust in pursuit of precedent,” Snowden tweeted. “Every credible expert knew there were alternative means. That the FBI went so far on so little demonstrated a disregard of facts: bad faith.”

You don’t have to like Snowden to see the accuracy in his claim.

This all presumes we can take the FBI and Justice Department at their word now, as opposed to before. It’s also a reasonable theory that they backed away from this week’s hearing out of concern that a reversal would create a tough precedent to overcome down the road.

It had to have been something significant to warrant a tactical reversal of such embarrassment.

Apple certainly had no plans to back down; CEO Tim Cook had pledged to appeal up to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Perhaps the FBI will get into that Farook phone now. Or it won’t. The courts, in interpreting the law, should consider individual privacy and security ahead of investigative expediency.

The FBI has tried to use the greater-good argument in insisting it needed a way into that iPhone, and greater good has meaning. It has less meaning when the agency making the claim shows it’s not as trustworthy as we might hope.