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FBI Will Help Local Police Unlock iPhones

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In a letter from the FBI obtained by CBS News, the agency has pledged to share its newfound iPhone-cracking ability with local police departments. This is a significant development in a debate over privacy that has had the tech world’s undivided attention for weeks.

Here’s a section of the letter quoted by CBS:

We know that the absence of lawful, critical investigative tools due to the ‘Going Dark’ problem is a substantial state and local law enforcement challenge that you face daily. As has been our longstanding policy, the FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners. Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints. You have our commitment that we will maintain an open dialogue with you. We are in this together.

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“Going Dark” is law enforcement terminology for the technical inability of an agency to intercept communication or information after being authorized to do so by a court.

The FBI recently ended a tumultuous legal battle with Apple (APPL), during which it tried to compel the iPhone maker to open the iPhone of one of the San Bernadino shooters—to essentially hack its own product. The FBI then found another way to crack the phone, and dropped its case against Apple.

The agency has since unlocked other phones, and, CBS reports, now “owns the proprietary rights” to its unlocking method. The offer to extend that power to local law enforcement, while not entirely surprising, has substantial implications for both Apple and privacy more broadly.

Now that it’s effectively available to all U.S. law enforcement agencies, there are likely to be many more iPhone cracks, and in connection with a broader range of crimes. Wiretap authorizations, to look at a parallel example, now encompass not just suspected violent crimes, drug offenses, organized crime, and terrorism, but also certain kinds of white collar crime.

And if the technique were actually shared with local agencies (as opposed to the FBI doing the work itself), awareness of it could easily end up becoming much more widespread.

For more on Apple vs. FBI, watch our video.

This puts Apple in an increasingly tricky position, summed up by its own statement that it will both cooperate with law enforcement and continue making its products more secure. Does maintaining its reputation for defending customers’ privacy now demand that it try to outsmart the Feds’ hacking techniques? How would it communicate that stance to consumers without seeming like it’s hoping to abet conspiracy?

For my money, the best summation of the vexed situation is still this tweet from a semi-secretive security analyst:

That grim fight just got a little bit more heated.