A twist in the Apple vs Justice Department story

An employee of the San Bernardino Department of Health reset the password on the iPhone belonging to terrorist Syed Farook while the device was in the possession of the federal government. The employee reset the password without the knowledge of the Justice Department.

ABC News:

Apple could have recovered information from the iPhone had the iCloud password not been reset, the company said. If the phone was taken to a location where it recognized the Wi-Fi network, such as the San Bernardino shooters' home, it could have been backed up to the cloud, Apple suggested.

An employee of the San Bernardino Department of Health reset the password on the iPhone belonging to terrorist Syed Farook while the device was in the possession of the federal government. The employee reset the password without the knowledge of the Justice Department.

ABC News:

Apple could have recovered information from the iPhone had the iCloud password not been reset, the company said. If the phone was taken to a location where it recognized the Wi-Fi network, such as the San Bernardino shooters' home, it could have been backed up to the cloud, Apple suggested.

The auto reset was executed by a county information technology employee, according to a federal official. Federal investigators only found out about the reset after it had occurred and that the county employee acted on his own, not on the orders of federal authorities, the source said.

Apple executives say the iPhone was in the possession of the government when iCloud password was reset. A federal official familiar with the investigation confirmed that federal investigators were indeed in possession of the phone when the reset occurred.

Missing the opportunity for a backup was crucial because some of the information stored on the phone would have been backed up to the iCloud and could have potentially been retrieved. According to court records, the iPhone had not been backed up since Oct. 19, 2015, one-and-a-half months before the attack and that this “indicates to the FBI that Farook may have disabled the automatic iCloud backup function to hide evidence.”

The development comes as the Justice Department is pushing forward with its legal fight against Apple, urging a federal judge to compel the tech giant to help the FBI crack open an iPhone left behind by Farook.

Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, launched a deadly assault on Dec. 2, 2015, killing 14 of Farook's coworkers at a holiday party.

The Justice Department has asked Apple to turn off the feature that erases an iPhone's data after 10 failed attempts to unlock the device so that investigators can run all possible combinations to break the four-digit passcode on Farook's phone. A federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI but the company has said it plans to fight the order.

Apple is terrified that if it appears to be giving in to the government on encryption, it will lose customers.  This is probably true, given the fanaticism of some privacy advocates.  But the company has made its stand, has lost in court, and should now do as the government has ordered. 

Farook may not have stored anything actionable on his phone, but I'm pretty sure some of the people he called might prove to be interesting as far as their ties to international terrorism.  After all, the government isn't asking Apple to decrypt a phone belonging to a thief or car jacker.  Squeezing every bit of information out of the investigation into a terrorist attack is reason enough for Apple to relent and give the government access to the phone.