- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

As the FBI remains committed to cracking the Apple iPhone at the center of a high-stakes national security case, Director James Comey told Congress on Tuesday that the bureau has appealed to other government agencies for assistance without avail.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Comey testified that even the National Security Agency hasn’t been able to use its code-cracking technology to gain access to the contents of a phone owned by one of the deceased perpetrators of the Dec. 2, 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Syed Farook.

The Justice Department has repeatedly asked Apple to give authorities access to the encrypted contents stored on the shooter’s smartphone, but representatives with the tech titan have refused by arguing that accomplishing as much is impossible unless it authors new code that would deliberately weaken the security of its products and put customer data at risk.

SEE ALSO: Apple, FBI set to face off in Congressional hearing

Absent deliberate cooperation on Apple’s behalf — the focus of a recent court order filed by federal investigators — the FBI has been left with few options aside from hacking the iPhone. And while leaked national security documents have previously suggested that the NSA is capable of the task at hand, Mr. Comey told the House panel that the FBI has been unable to get help from other three-letter agencies, let alone crack the device on its own.

“I understand there may be other methods to recover data from a smartphone,” Rep. Judy Chu, California Democrat, said at Tuesday’s hearing. “Other entities within the federal government may have the expertise to crack the code. Has the FBI pursued these other methods or tried to get help from within the federal government such as from agencies such as the NSA?”

“Yes is the answer,” Mr. Comey quickly replied. “We’ve talked to anybody who will talk to us about it, and I welcome additional suggestions.”

SEE ALSO: Win over Apple in San Bernardino iPhone case could ‘potentially’ set precedent, FBI director says

“If we could have done this quietly and privately, we would have done it,” he said later.

The FBI director’s response suggests the NSA is either unwilling or unable to hack Farook’s iPhone for the FBI, in turn raising new questions about Apple’s security and the spy agency’s ability to compromise it.

If NSA analysts indeed aren’t able to crack the iPhone 5c in question, it would lend credence to recent claims made by the government with respect to security features that have been rolled out with more recent versions of the handsets: in court documents filed last month, federal prosecutors argued “Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government.”

Previously, however, leaked NSA documents cited at a 2013 security conference by researcher and journalist Jacob Appelbaum suggested that the agency possessed the ability to crack into iPhones running earlier, less-secure versions of Apple’s operating system.

The NSA “literally claim that any time they target an iOS device, that it will succeed for implantation,” Mr. Appelbaum said during the thirtieth annual Chaos Communication Congress in Germany that year. “Either they have a huge collection of exploits that work against Apple products — meaning they are hoarding information about critical systems American companies product and sabotaging them — or Apple sabotages it themselves.”

Later during Tuesday’s hearing, security expert Susan Landau told lawmakers that the NSA may in fact have an exploit for the shooter’s iPhone but is unwilling to make it available outside of the agency.

“Director Comey said we’ve talked to everyone who’ll talk to us, but I was at an event held by the FCC, and some senior people from DOJ were there and I said ‘Well NSA has skill X and skill Y’ and they said ‘They don’t share them with us except in extraordinary circumstances,’” she recalled.

A solution, Ms. Landau suggested, is that the FBI uses its own resources to develop new exploits instead of hoping tech manufactures will make their devices susceptible to government surveillance.

“Law enforcement don’t have the skills and they need to develop them,” Ms. Landau added, claiming “law enforcement continues to see electronic surveillance in 20th century terms, and it is using 20th century investigative thinking in a 21st century world.”

The NSA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported.

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