The FBI does not have to reveal the identity of a vendor that helped it unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack, or the price it paid for the vendor’s services, a federal judge ruled.
In summary judgment issued Saturday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in the District of Columbia wrote that the FBI had shown that releasing the vendor’s name “could be reasonably expected to cause harm to national security interests by limiting the FBI’s present and future ability to gain access to suspected terrorists’ phones.”
She also wrote that disclosure of the vendor’s identity would “risk disclosure of a law enforcement technique and create a reasonably expected risk of circumvention of the law.”
The judge also ruled that releasing the amount paid could also cause a “reasonably expected risk of harm to national security,” as the price could “logically reveal how much the FBI values gaining access to suspects’ phones, and the breadth of the tool’s capabilities.”
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year by three news organizations under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Associated Press, Gannett Satellite Information Network and Vice Media had initially filed separate FOIA requests to the FBI last year seeking records about the agency’s “financial agreements” with the vendor who eventually helped the FBI unlock an iPhone 5C used by Syed Rizwan Farook. Farook, along with his wife, carried out the Dec. 2, 2015, attack that left 14 dead and many others wounded. Justice officials say the assault was an act of terrorism.
The news organizations had argued that then-FBI Director James B. Comey had already publicly disclosed that the purchase price was “very high,” which would negate further possible harm to national security if the dollar value were revealed.
The FBI had initially tried to compel iPhone maker Apple Inc. to help unlock Farook’s phone, but the tech giant refused.
In March 2016, an “outside party” demonstrated a method to unlock the phone to the FBI, and by the end of the month, the bureau said it had “successfully accessed the data” stored on the iPhone and no longer needed help from Apple, according to the summary judgment.