A judge on Tuesday ordered Apple to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation break into a phone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the killers in the December shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled Apple must provide "reasonable technical assistance" to investigators seeking to unlock the data on Farook's iPhone 5C.
The ruling requires Apple to supply highly specialized software the FBI can load onto the phone to cripple a security feature that erases data after too many unsuccessful unlocking attempts. Apple has programmed its iPhones to allow them to be accessed only with a passcode.
Federal prosecutors told the judge they can't access a county-owned work phone used by Farook because they don't know his passcode. The “subject device” was seized “pursuant to a federal search warrant for a black Lexus IS300,” according to the government’s court filing. His employer, the San Bernardino Public Health Department, has consented to a search of the phone, according to the filing.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling. The company has five business days to contest the order if it believes compliance would be "unreasonably burdensome," Pym said in her decision.
The Dec. 2 attack by Farook and Tashfeen Malik, his wife, killed 14 people and injured 22 others at a holiday luncheon for Farook's co-workers in San Bernardino. The two were killed in a shootout with police.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles on Tuesday requested the court compel Apple to assist the investigation. "Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily," prosecutors said.
The case is the latest episode in a long-running dispute between tech companies and law enforcement over encryption. Government officials have warned that the expanded use of strong encryption is hindering national security and criminal investigations.
Technology experts and privacy advocates counter that forcing U.S. companies to weaken their encryption for law enforcement purposes would make private data vulnerable to hackers, undermine the security of the Internet and give a competitive advantage to companies in other countries.
It also was not immediately clear what investigators believe they might find on Farook's work phone or why the information would not be available from third-party service providers, such as Google or Facebook, though investigators think the device may hold clues about people with whom the couple communicated and where the two may have traveled.
Farook and Malik took pains to destroy two of their personal cellphones, crushing them beyond the FBI's ability to recover information from them. Also, the two removed a hard drive from their computer; it has not been found, even after investigators searched for potential electronic evidence in a nearby lake, diving for days.
He was not carrying his work iPhone during the attack. It was discovered after a subsequent search. It was not known whether he forgot about the iPhone or did not care whether investigators found it.
Pym didn't spell out her rationale in her three-page order, but the ruling comes while a similar case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In that case, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein has not yet decided whether the government may compel Apple to unlock an iPhone under the All Writs Act, an 18th century law applied to the California case. The act has been used to compel a party to help the government in its law enforcement efforts, but Apple has argued that it is not its role to act as a government agent and that doing so would breach trust with its customers.
Investigators are still working to piece together 18 unaccounted-for minutes in Farook's and Malik's activities from Dec. 2. Investigators have concluded the two were at least partly inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; Malik's Facebook page included a note pledging allegiance to the group's leader around the time of the attack.
FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress last week that investigators in the case have been unable to access a phone in the California case but provided no details.
"It is a big problem for law enforcement armed with a search warrant when you find a device that can't be opened even when a judge says there's probable cause to open it," he said. "It affects our counterterrorism work. San Bernardino, a very important investigation to us — we still have one of those killers' phones that we have not been able to open, and it's been over two months, and we're still working on it."
Al Jazeera with wire services