After the attack in San Bernardino last December that killed 14 people and wounded 22 others, the FBI hired a private hacker to unlock the iPhone of one of the two dead terrorists. Perhaps the FBI learned some of Syed Rizwan Farook’s evil secrets. But it also created unsettling secrets of its own.
The mysteries left over from the episode start with these: Who is the unnamed private party the FBI paid to break the smartphone’s security device? How much taxpayer money did the agency pay?
News organizations that have been stiff-armed by the FBI in their Freedom of Information Act request now are suing the bureau for answers.
We hope they succeed. The public should be able to know more about how the FBI cracked the privacy safeguards on the terrorist’s Apple phone. This is about more than one investigation and one wrongdoer’s phone — it’s about the threat that the government’s ability to break into electronic devices could pose to anybody’s online privacy and safety, especially if the tools fell into the wrong hands.
As the lawsuit, filed last week by the Associated Press, the Gannett media company and the Vice Media digital and broadcasting company, said: “Understanding the amount that the FBI deemed appropriate to spend on the tool, as well as the identity and reputation of the vendor it did businesses with, is essential for the public to provide effective oversight of government functions and help guard against potential improprieties.”
Of course, there may have to be limits on what civilians can know about law enforcement’s methods without compromising their effectiveness. But the proper limits almost certainly are fewer than government officials would claim.
Last winter, the FBI tried to force Apple to devise a way to unlock Farook’s work phone, while tech companies argued this would undercut all smartphone owners’ privacy. A day before a scheduled showdown in a Riverside court, the FBI announced it had hired someone to hack the phone. The question remains whether the FBI had been bluffing, claiming it needed the power to compel private companies to cooperate with it when it really didn’t.
But first questions first. Americans should cheer the AP-led lawsuit.
—The Orange County Register, Sept. 25, 2016