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Watchdog: FBI Could Have Tried Harder to Hack iPhone

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The Apple iPhone 7 is displayed at an Apple store at the Grove in Los Angeles, California, Sept. 16, 2016. VOA

FBI officials could have tried harder to unlock an iPhone as part of a terrorism investigation before launching an extraordinary court fight with Apple Inc. in an effort to force it to break open the device, the Justice Department’s watchdog said Tuesday.

The department’s inspector general said it found no evidence the FBI was able to access data on the phone belonging to one of the gunmen in a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, as then-FBI Director James Comey told Congress more than once. But communications failures among FBI officials delayed the search for a solution. The FBI unit tasked with breaking into mobile devices only sought outside help to unlock the phone the day before the Justice Department filed a court brief demanding Apple’s help, the inspector general found.

The finding could hurt future Justice Department efforts to force technology companies to help the government break into encrypted phones and computers.

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FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at the 2018 Boston Conference on Cybersecurity at Boston College, in Boston, Massachusetts, March 7, 2018. VOA

The intense public debate surrounding the FBI’s legal fight with Apple largely faded after federal authorities announced they were able to access the phone in the San Bernardino attack without the help of the technology giant. But Trump administration officials have indicated a renewed interest in legislation that would address the problem, with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray publicly discussing their frequent frustration with encrypted devices. Congress could be less inclined to act on the problem — known as “going dark” — if there is an indication it may not be necessary.

Even after an outside vendor demonstrated it could successfully hack the phone, FBI officials disagreed over whether it should be used, in part because it would make the legal battle with Apple unnecessary. Some FBI officials thought they had found the precedent-setting case to convince Americans there should be no encryption that can’t be defeated or accessed with a warrant.

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FBI Executive Assistant Director for Science and Technology Amy Hess, testifies in Washington, April 19, 2016, before a House subcommittee hearing on deciphering the debate over encryption. VOA

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Amy Hess, who then oversaw the FBI’s science and technology division, told the inspector general’s office she was concerned that other officials did not seem to want to find a technical solution, or perhaps even knew of one, but remained silent in order to beat Apple in court.

The inspector general found no one withheld knowledge of an existing FBI capability, but failed to pursue all avenues in search for a solution. An FBI unit chief knew that an outside vendor had almost 90 percent completed a technique that would have allowed it to break into the phone, the report said, even as the Justice Department insisted that forcing Apple’s help was the only option.

Apple fought back, triggering a courtroom showdown that revived the debate over the balance of digital privacy rights and national security. Apple had argued that helping the FBI hack the iPhone would set a dangerous precedent, making all iPhone users vulnerable, and argued that Congress should take up the issue.

Apple declined to comment Tuesday. The FBI did not immediately return calls, but said in a letter to the inspector general that it agreed it with the findings and recommendations for improved communication. The report says the FBI is adding a new section to address the “going dark” problem and boost coordination among units that work on computers and mobile devices.

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Former FBI Director James Comey smiles during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, June 8, 2017. VOA

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Law enforcement officials have long warned that encryption and other data-protection measures are making it more difficult for investigators to track criminals and dangerous extremists. Wray said late last year that agents have been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices — nearly 7,000 phones, computers and tablets — that they tried to access in less than a year.

Yet Congress has shown little appetite for legislation that would force tech companies to give law enforcement easier access.

The issue also troubled Wray’s predecessor, Comey, who frequently spoke about the bureau’s inability to access digital devices. But the Obama White House never publicly supported legislation that would have forced technology companies to give the FBI a back door to encrypted information, leaving Comey’s hands tied to propose a specific legislative fix. VOA

Next Story

India Becomes the Second Largest Smartphone Market After China: Report

India surpasses US to become 2nd largest smartphone market

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The Indian smartphone market surpassed the US for the first time on an annual level. Pixabay

New Delhi: Riding on Chinese brands, the India smartphone market surpassed the US for the first time on an annual level and this is the latest science and technology news, becoming the second-largest smartphone market after China globally — reaching 158 million shipments in the calender year 2019 with 7 per cent (YoY) growth, a report from Counterpoint Research said on Friday.

While Xiaomi continued to be the top player with 28 per cent market share in the calendar year 2019, Samsung was second with 21 per cent and Vivo at 16 per cent market share, said Counterpoint’s ‘Market Monitor’ service.

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India has now become the second-largest smartphone market after China globally. Pixabay

“Although the rate of growth for smartphone market hit single digit for the first time ever on an annual basis, India is underpenetrated relative to many other markets with 4G penetration in terms of subscribers being around 55 per cent,” said Tarun Pathak, Associate Director, Counterpoint.

“Chinese brands share hit a record 72 per cent for the year 2019 as compared to 60 per cent share a year ago.

“This year, we have seen all major Chinese players expanding their footprint in offline and online channels to gain market share. For instance, Xiaomi, realme, and OnePlus have increased their offline points of sale while brands like Vivo have expanded their online reach with Z and U series,” said Anshika Jain, Research Analyst at Counterpoint.

Over the past four years, Xiaomi, Vivo, and OnePlus have grown 15 times, 24 times and 18 per cent, respectively.

“This highlights that OEMs are mature enough to capture next wave of growth and expand their operations in India,” Jain added.

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Although the rate of growth for smartphone market hit single digit for the first time ever on an annual basis, India is underpenetrated relative to many other markets with 4G penetration in terms of subscribers being around 55 per cent. Pixabay

Samsung shipments remained almost flat (YoY) while it has shown a 5 per cent (YoY) decline in 2019.

“This is for the first time Samsung transitioned to a completely new portfolio targeting different channels (offline with A series and online with M series). However, it needs to double down its efforts to keep the momentum going,” the report noted.

While the smartphone market registered YoY growth, the feature phone market witnessed a steep decline of nearly 42 per cent YoY in 2019 and 38 per cent (YoY) in Q4 2019.

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“This is due to slowdown in the new shipments from Reliance Jio. However, the players such as itel, Lava, Nokia and Micromax registered positive annual
growth despite the overall segment declined showing the untapped potential of the market,” said the report.

In fact, itel emerged as the number one feature phone brand in Q4 2019, followed by Samsung and Lava. (IANS)