Investigators in Texas Attack Took Over 48 Hours to Contact Apple About Shooter's iPhone

By Del Quentin Wilber and Robert McMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

The 26-year-old gunman who massacred a Baptist congregation in rural Texas on Sunday was carrying an iPhone, according to a law-enforcement official. But more than 48 hours after the incident, investigators hadn't alerted Apple Inc., or sought the company's technical assistance.

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The 48-hour lapse could prove important if the shooter, identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, had enabled TouchID on his phone, which allows the user to access the phone's contents using a thumb print.

In theory, law-enforcement investigators could have tried to use Kelley's fingers to unlock Apple's TouchID mechanism and gain access to the phone. But iPhones require a passcode, rather than TouchID, if they are left for 48 hours without being unlocked.

"You have a 48-hour chance to get that person's finger on that phone to unlock it," said Dan Guido, chief executive of security consulting firm Trail of Bits Inc. "If you let that time expire, you're stuck with the passcode."

Apple has added security features that make guessing a passcode difficult, including one option that restricts the number of passcode guesses to 10 attempts.

Texas law-enforcement officials expressed frustration about not being able to access the phone -- reviving a long-running tension between the federal government, which says security systems hamper investigations, and tech companies, which say they are doing their best to protect the privacy of customers.

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"Law enforcement is increasingly not able to get into these phones," Christopher Combs, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's San Antonio field office, said at a press conference Tuesday. "I can assure you that we are working very hard to get into the phone."

Mr. Combs declined to identify the type of phone the gunman was carrying, but a separate law-enforcement official briefed on the investigation confirmed it was an iPhone.

Apple said Wednesday it "immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone. We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us.

"We work with law enforcement every day. We offer training to thousands of agents so they understand our devices and how they can quickly request information from Apple," the company said in a statement.

FBI spokeswoman Carol Cratty declined to comment.

Federal authorities sent Kelly's phone to the bureau's laboratory in Quantico, Va., to be examined, the law-enforcement official said.

Though Apple has refused to break into its own security systems for the government, law enforcement often calls Apple experts to run down a checklist of ways they can get into a phone, or preserve evidence. The company routinely provides law enforcement with data that is backed up to its iCloud servers.

Federal officials haven't asked Apple for any technical assistance but are discussing matters with the company, according to a law-enforcement officer who declined to elaborate.

While it's unclear whether Kelley used TouchID on his phone, there's nothing that Apple could have done within the first 48 hours after the shooting that the company cannot do now, said Mr. Guido, of Trail of Bits.

Information stored on the iPhone is protected by state-of-the art encryption techniques that are extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to crack.

Last year, the FBI paid more than $1 million to gain access to the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. That phone was an older iPhone 5C, introduced in 2013. Breaking into a more recent model would be even more difficult, security professionals say.

In the San Bernardino case, the FBI was criticized resetting the shooter's iCloud password, a maneuver that could have prevented the phone from backing up automatically to Apple's servers, where its data could have been recovered.

"There's an immense challenge in front of our nation to ensure that law enforcement professionals have access to the training to know what to do with a phone recovered at the scene of a crime," Mr. Guido said.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 08, 2017 19:58 ET (00:58 GMT)