The billion dollar question: The FBI appears to have the ability to either unlock or otherwise retrieve data from an iPhone 11 running iOS 13 without having the passcode. If this is the case, why is it asking Apple to unlock two other devices — an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7? Surely, the older phones are not more secure than the current generation, or are they?

As we reported earlier this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has once again asked Apple to unlock two iPhones in connection with the Pensacola Naval Air Base shooting. While the company has indicated that it has been cooperating with authorities by turning over relevant documents and files, it has stopped short of cracking the devices.

Pressure increased in the following weeks as the FBI, US Attorney General William Barr, and President Trump have also asked Cupertino for help opening the devices. However, it appears that they may not actually need Apple's help at all.

Forbes reports that it has obtained a search warrant from an unrelated 2019 case that reveals that the FBI has already successfully cracked an iPhone 11 Pro Max. The device belonged to Baris Ali Koch, who is accused of aiding and abetting for helping his brother flee the country after he was convicted on a hate crime charge.

Photographs of the iPhone listed in the warrant show what is definitely Apple's latest iPhone. Forbes confirmed with Koch's lawyer that the phone was locked when the authorities obtained it and that his client did not provide the passcode. The image also shows the phone in a secured state, indicating it was locked when entered into evidence.


Image via Southern District Court of Ohio

An inventory sheet included with the warrant, stated that a USB drive containing GrayKey was used on the device for "forensic analysis." The iPhone unlocking software made by Grayshift has been around since at least early 2018. Since its discovery, Apple has been implementing measures to thwart the technology with unverified success.

Apple's newest devices are supposed to be more secure than past iterations, so it is unclear why officials are continuing to apply pressure to the tech giant to open the older Pensacola phones — an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has asked the Justice Department for its reasoning in publicly demanding "backdoors" when it already possesses the tools to breach the newest iPhones.

According to Berkley International Computer Science Institute researcher Nicholas Weaver, the FBI's tactics are nothing more than "theatre." He explains that Cupertino designed the iPhone without a means for getting in without the passcode, not even for Apple.

"Basically, Apple made a safe where to change the combo you have to unlock the safe, and the FBI is saying 'change the combo' when they know full well you can't change the combo without unlocking the safe first," said Weaver.

To what end the theatrics serve remains in question. The DoJ has declined to comment on the matter, so one can only speculate as to the motivation for the continued demands. Perhaps the Bureau and other government officials are attempting to set a precedent to facilitate future failed attempts at cracking devices, but who knows?

Now that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, it will be interesting to see if the FBI backs down on the issue.

Masthead credit: Cristian Dina via Shutterstock