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FBI to apply iPhone security bypass in second case

The FBI is to help unlock an iPhone in an Arkansas murder case, deepening fears that the method used to break into the San Bernardino gunman’s phone will be applied more widely

Just days after bypassing the security of the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone, the FBI has agreed to help unlock an iPhone and iPod of two teenagers accused of murder in Arkansas.

Apple was under pressure for nearly six weeks after a judge ordered the company to help the FBI by creating a backdoor to access data held on the San Bernardino device.

In that time, the FBI claimed it was seeking help to access only the iPhone linked to the San Bernardino case. It eventually gained access with the help of a third party after Apple refused.

The case has fuelled debate over encryption and privacy, and prompted big US technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook to come out in support of Apple.

The prosecutor in Arkansas, Cody Hiland, confirmed that the FBI had agreed to help unlock Apple devices belonging to 18-year-old Hunter Drexler and 15-year-old Justin Staton. The pair are accused of killing 66-year-old Robert and Patricia Cogdell, who had raised Staton as their grandson.

The iPhone belongs to Drexler, while Staton is believed to have used the iPod to communicate about the double murder and robbery.

The FBI has not revealed how it broke the security of the iPhone of the San Bernardino gunman, Syed Rizwan Farook, nor whether it will use the same method in the Arkansas case, according to the Guardian newspaper.

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Backdoor disquiet

The news has deepened fears that the method used to access data on Farook’s phone will be applied more widely.

The underlying concern is that the method or the vulnerability it exploits could leak out and fall into the hands of cyber criminals and other malicious actors, putting all iPhone users at risk.

In response to news of the FBI’s security bypass, Apple issued a statement saying it had objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent.

The company said it would continue to help law enforcement officials with their investigations, but it also vowed to continue to beef up the security of its products in the face of increasingly frequent and sophisticated attacks on data.

Apple said it believed people around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. “Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk,” the company said.

Fixing flaws

Security industry representatives and privacy advocates have called on the FBI to share details of the iPhone security bypass with Apple.

If the method exploits a flaw, Apple is keen to fix it so it cannot be exploited by cyber criminals. However, US government officials have classified the information, according to the Guardian.

The paper reported that US senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has vowed to block any attempt by his colleagues to make it law that US technology companies have to be able to break their own encryption.

In the UK, several technology suppliers have raised concerns about the government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill. Some have indicated that they have contingency plans to leave the UK if the final draft of the bill does not make it clear that it will not require weakened encryption or backdoor access.

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