FBI facing FOIA requests over hacking of San Bernardino terrorist iPhone

© Reuters
Three news organizations filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information from the Federal Bureau of Information how the agency was able to hack the cell phone of one of the San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook.

“The News Organizations seek to compel the FBI to provide records of the publicly-acknowledged business transaction that resulted in the purchase of this March of the so-called iPhone access tool,” stated the complaint filed by the Associated Press, Gannet and Vice media against the FBI in the US District Court in Washington, DC on Friday.

The complaint said the FBI’s purchase of “the tool allowed the government access to Mr. Farook’s phone, providing new information about one of the deadliest attacks on American soil in recent years, but also apparently failing to reveal any evidence of links between Mr. Farook and foreign terrorists or terrorist organizations.”

The complaint also added that the tool sparked “tremendous nationwide debate” over the balance between national security and privacy, and whether law enforcement should be empowered to compel access to encrypted and protected devices.

The San Bernardino attack by Farook and his wife, Tashfee Malik, on December 2, 2015, killed 14 people attending an office holiday party, and wounded 22 others. President Barack Obama defined it as an act of terrorism and evidence emerged that Ms. Malik has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State prior to the attack. Both attackers were killed by police Shortly after the attack, lawmakers tried to access Farook’s iPhone for ties to the terror group but were thwarted by the phone’s security features.

The Justice Department spent over a month trying in a legal battle trying to compel Apple to help agents bypass the security feature on the iPhone. The dispute ended when the FBI said it had found an "outside party" to crack the phone with the company’s help.

The FBI did not reveal which outside party provided the tool or how much was paid. FBI director James Comey imitated in April that it costs more than $1 million, and later said it was “well worth” the high price.

The complaint said Comey “suggested the tool was not then being used in any other investigations, and that a chief reason why the FBI did not want to disclose more information was to ensure that it would be able to drive a good bargain in potential future technology purchasing negotiations.” The complaint said the FBI director had not explained how it vetted the vendor, why it was considered an appropriate one, or “whether the vendor was able to sell the technology to a foreign government or terrorist or criminal organization.”

The complaint is filed after the FBI had denied FOIA requests filed USA Today, AP and Vice about the agreements with the third party hacker and expenditure records because the agency said they could “interfere with enforcement proceedings.”