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Apple could give shooting victims 'closure' by hacking gunman's iPhone, lawyer says

A lawyer representing some victims of the San Bernardino terror attack said that Apple Inc. would provide his clients with "closure" if it complied with government demands and unlocked the gunman's iPhone.

"Any information that can shed light on why this happened and what information was being discussed about these victims by the terrorists, that helps bring some degree of closure," attorney Stephen Larson said Monday. 

The lawyer said he is representing several families of victims, as well as shooting survivors, and will be filing a friend-of-the-court brief early next month in the legal battle between the tech giant and the FBI.

Larson would not say how many victims he was representing, but said his clients had a "compelling interest in the outcome."

"The law enforcement interest is in terms of their criminal investigation and potential prosecution. The victims’ interest goes beyond that, goes beyond just a prosecution or criminal investigation. It goes to the bigger questions: How [could this] have happened? Why were these victims targeted? Is there any continued issue or concern?"

Larson, a former federal judge, said he was approached by the Justice Department and local prosecutors nearly a week ago and asked if he would consider representing victims' and family members' interests in a brief. He is not being paid for the work, he said.

The San Bernardino attack left 14 people dead and 22 people injured. In a statement Sunday, FBI Director James Comey said the scale of the attacks warranted the pursuit of all leads, including reviewing Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone 5c. 

"We simply want the chance, with a search warrant, to try to guess the terrorist's passcode without the phone essentially self-destructing and without it taking a decade to guess correctly," Comey said. "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

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Comey's statement came in response to comments made by Apple attorney Ted Olson, who predicted the FBI's request would unleash "Pandora's box" and compromise the privacy of millions of Apple customers. 

In a letter sent to Apple employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the case "is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone's civil liberties."

The FBI has been investigating the Dec. 2 attacks by Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who stormed into the Inland Regional Center and shot his coworkers from the San Bernardino County Public Health Department. 

Investigators believe Farook's smartphone, issued to him by the county, "may contain critical communications" around the time of the shooting. The FBI has a warrant to search the phone, but Apple's encryption technology erases the phone's data after 10 failed attempts to break the passcode. 

The FBI has already obtained backup data that the gunman saved to iCloud. However, that backup occurred before Oct. 19, and roughly seven weeks worth of data leading up to the attack remains hidden to investigators.

"Maybe the phone holds the clue to finding more terrorists. Maybe it doesn't," Comey said Sunday. "But we can't look the survivors in the eye, or ourselves in the mirror, if we don't follow this lead."

Larson said Olson's prediction that the FBI’s request would unleash “Pandora’s box” is “wildly overstated.”

“We are talking about one phone that was being used by a dead, murderous terrorist and that’s all,” Larson said. “We’re not talking about opening up everybody’s phone ... we’re not talking about any other case, but this particular case. And I think the circumstances here warrant the relief the government is seeking.”

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Twitter: @brittny_mejia

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