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Terror iPhone Case Set Off Flurry of Hack Ideas, FBI Director Says

by Matthew DeLuca /

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FBI Director James Comey said that the federal law enforcement agency received numerous proposals from people who thought they could help crack the iPhone at the center of a contentious court case with Apple, leading to a surprise delay in the case on Tuesday.

“Lots of folks came to us with ideas,” Comey wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “It looks like one of those ideas may work and that is a very good thing, because the San Bernardino case was not about trying to send a message or set a precedent; it was and is about fully investigating a terrorist attack.”

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Comey was responding to a strongly worded editorial in the Journal that questioned whether the government rushed into court to get Apple to help access an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino massacre last December. The FBI and Justice Department may have been hungry for a precedent that could be used in other investigations, the editorial suggested.

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“You are simply wrong to assert that the FBI and the Justice Department lied about our ability to access the San Bernardino killer’s phone,” Comey wrote in his letter. The case “stimulated creative people around the world to see what they might be able to do. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that all technical creativity does not reside in government.”

Lawyers for the Justice Department filed an unexpected motion on Monday asking to postpone a hearing set for the next day. An “outside party” had come forward with a “possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone" a day earlier, they said — after more than a month of the government saying it had no way of getting into the phone without Apple’s help.

Read More: Apple's Tim Cook Kicks Off Product Launch by Addressing FBI Feud

“Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search,” the government wrote in its initial request for an order compelling Apple’s assistance, filed Feb. 16. Just over a week later, Comey said that the idea that the FBI should have the technical ability to get into Apple’s devices was “the product of people watching too many TV shows.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and Edward Snowden were among other parties who have suggested that there may be other ways the FBI could get into the phone that would not require Apple's help.

"Despite Director Comey's claim that the FBI wasn't seeking a precedent, it would have gotten one had the government won the case," ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo said on Thursday. "And that precedent would be a threat to everyone's security and privacy."

The Justice Department’s filing on Monday says that they learned of the new possible way into the phone on March 20. The government is scheduled to report on the status of its efforts by April 5.

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