A judge ordered Apple Tuesday to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of a gunman who along with his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California in December, even after Apple said months ago its hands were tied when it came to hacking the phone.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ruled Apple should supply highly specialized software the FBI can load onto the phone to cripple a security encryption feature that erases data after too many unsuccessful unlocking attempts.
Officials can’t access the phone used by gunman Syed Farook because they don’t know his passcode. By default, Apple has encrypted its iPhones to allow them only to be accessed using a passcode.
The phone in question is apparently Farook’s work-issued iPhone 5c, NBC reports. Farook worked for San Bernardino County and with his wife, Tafsheen Malik, killed 14 people and injured 22 more in a Dec. 2 shooting at a holiday luncheon for Farook’s co-workers. The couple later died in a police gun battle.
Apple has five days to respond to Tuesday’s ruling, which says the Cupertino company must provide “reasonable technical assistance” to the FBI, according to court documents.
In a statement, U.S Attorney Eileen Decker called Tuesday’s court order “a potentially important step in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino.”
The ruling comes amid a bigger debate around encryption and whether or not tech companies like Apple should provide the government with so-called “backdoors,” technology that allows government and police officials to bypass encryption. Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized the Obama Administration for not being a stronger supporter of unbreakable encryption.
It’s unclear whether or not Apple will be able to help the investigators bypass the iPhone’s passcode. Apple said last year that as of iOS 8 it does not have the ability to retrieve data from devices secured with a passcode — even with a government warrant — as the company does not have a way to obtain users’ passcodes.
Rather than asking Apple to obtain and provide the device’s passcode, Tuesday’s ruling orders Apple to provide the FBI with special software that can act as a workaround for the iPhone’s built-in security. Court documents suggest Apple should either provide software that bypasses the need for a passcode entirely or software that allows the FBI to unlock the phone by running an endless combination of passcodes until they are able to unlock the device. The latter method would also require software that disables the iPhone’s auto-erase feature, which wipes a device after a certain number of unsuccessful attempts at unlocking.
Apple did not immediately respond to Mashable’s request for comment.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.