By: Sam Varghese of IT Wire

Both Democrats and Republicans from the US House of Representatives have characterised as "highly questionable" the FBI's claim that it could not gain access to 7800 mobile devices last year.

Their reaction came in a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray about the agency's actions in the 2016 stoush with Apple, over gaining access to an iPhone 5C belonging to a terrorist who had killed Americans in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015.

They cited a recent report from the Justice Department inspector-general that "undermines statements that the FBI made during the San Bernardino litigation and consistently since then, that only the device manufacturer (Apple) could provide a solution" to unlock the iPhone in question.

The inspector-general's report had said the FBI was not interested in unlocking tools developed by third parties and was looking to force Apple to provide a means of access to iPhones.

The House members added that recent reports that companies such as Cellebrite and GrayShift had developed tools to cheaply unlock nearly every phone on the market, including the latest version of iOS, raised even more concerns that the FBI had not been forthcoming about the extent of the problem of "going dark".

The FBI's stoush with Apple kicked off in February 2016, when the agency obtained a court order, asking the company to supply a new version of its mobile operating system, iOS, which did not have certain locking functions, so that the agency could attempt to guess the passcode on the iPhone 5C by using a brute force method.

When Apple resisted, the FBI came back with an order compelling the company to fall in line.

The matter was supposed to be heard in Court on 22 March 2016, but a day before this the FBI suddenly asked for a continuance until 5 April 2016 in order that a method proposed by an outside agency for breaking into the phone could be tested.

This method has apparently been a success. At the time it was reported that the outside party was the Israeli firm Cellebrite which was said to have been paid more than US$15,000 for the job.

Later in March, the FBI ended the stoush, saying it had gained access to the iPhone in question.

The US lawmakers, in their letter to Wray, asked the FBI to answer a number of questions regarding the "going dark" problem as soon as possible:

  • Whether the bureau had consulted third parties to understand what tools were available to help access device content;
  • Whether the FBI agreed that there were solutions on the market to decrypt nearly every device available and, if not, why these solutions were not sufficient;
  • Why the FBI could not unlock the 7800 devices it had mentioned and whether it had attempted to use third-party tools to unlock them;
  • Of the total locked phones, how many were equipped with biometrics, and how many had data available through a cloud service, as the latter would mean there was an additional means to access data or unlock phones; and
  • what was the rationale behind every instance of not using a third-party tool to unlock a device that was encrypted.

The letter was signed by Republicans Matt Gaetz (Florida), Darrell Issa (California), Jim Jordan (Ohio), James Sensenbrenner Jr (Wisconsin), and Ted Poe (Texas); and Democrats Suzan DelBene (Washington), Ted Lieu and Zoe Lofgren (both California), Jerrold Nadler (New York), and Jared Polis (Colorado).