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Analyst Comments On The Significance Of FBI Unlocking iPhone


The FBI has agreed to assist prosecutors in Arkansas in gaining access to an iPhone and another device believed to contain evidence in a murder trial. This, after the FBI announced earlier this week it had exactly broken into the iPhone of one of San Bernardino attackers using an unnamed third party. Yesterday on this program, NPR's Aarti Shahani looked at another such cold case in Louisiana.


AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The question of who shot Brittney Mills is wide open. And the answer could be locked up in an iPhone - her iPhone phone. Unlike the San Bernardino shooter, she's the victim and not the perpetrator. But like that case, investigators are not able to enter into the phone. It's running on the iOS 8 operating system. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore.


HILLAR MOORE: No gun left, no gun found. We really are desperate to try to get into the phone just to see if there's anything else there.

MONTAGNE: That Louisiana district attorney may or may get the help he wants from the FBI. But there's certainly lots of interest in those working on cases like Brittney Mills' across the country. The FBI has not said in the Arkansas case, where it is helping out, whether it will use the same third-party method that it used with Apple. For more on the significance of all of this, we turned to Philip Mudd. He's analyst formerly with the CIA and FBI.

Good morning.

PHILIP MUDD: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's an offer to Arkansas by the FBI following its tangle with Apple. Seems like a bit - like a poke in the eye. What do you make of that decision?

MUDD: I don't see it as a poke in the eye. Look, anytime you want to understand what happens in a terrorism case or a criminal case, you have very basic questions, pattern of life questions - who did the subject speak to? Did they take photographs that are of interest? Who's on their list of contacts? - for example, simple questions you would get in any case.

And I think what the FBI is suggesting is that in the 21st century, those answers are on an iPhone. And they need access to that iPhone to get the most basic of answers about what your pattern of life is in a criminal or terrorism case.

MONTAGNE: Well, a moment ago, we heard about the case of 29-year-old Brittney Mills whose locked cell - iPhone may contain clues to her murder. There will be others. Is this a technology the FBI - and I'm guessing from what you've just said - should share?

MUDD: I think they should. I don't think that's the right question at the moment. Remember, we have a third-party entity - a private entity that was paid by the FBI for the capability to get into the phone. If I were that third-party entity, I would say - to the FBI - you don't have the right to give what we just told you to Apple. If Apple wants this, they'll have to approach us and pay us a lot of money to realize how we broke into their phone. So I don't think it's as simple as asking whether the FBI should share it. I wouldn't share it if I were them because I'm not sure they own it.

MONTAGNE: Well, this gets us to the big mystery here - who is the third party? And it's been floated - everything from an Israeli company to Apple itself.

MUDD: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: What do you think? Or what do you know, if anything?

MUDD: I don't know anything. But I think this solution about third parties is not a long-term answer. Look, there's going to be different operating systems, different devices, different phones in the future. To anticipate that in every criminal case and every terrorism case as time progresses and new devices come on the market, that a new entity will come forward and say - we can break it - is not an efficient way to access these phones.

I think we're still getting around the basic issue. How do you develop a relationship between Silicon Valley firms and the FBI so that this can be done by the firms that actually develop the technology and that we don't anticipate that individual firms simply come forward in the future and come up with solutions for how to get into the these devices?

MONTAGNE: Well, do you think that that is possibly where we are headed next, just briefly?

MUDD: I do. I think that eventually there's going to be either an agreement between the companies or congressional legislation to solve this because the FBI can't be relying on people coming forward to solve this for Apple and for the FBI.

MONTAGNE: Just sort of randomly, hopefully.

MUDD: That's correct. Yeah, I don't think that's a solution going into the future.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

MUDD: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Philip Mudd is a former FBI, CIA and National Security Council counterintelligence official. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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