Judge forces Apple to help unlock San Bernardino shooter iPhone

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A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Apple to give investigators access to encrypted data on the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, assistance the computer giant "declined to provide voluntarily," according to court papers.

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In a 40-page filing, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles argued that it needed Apple to help it find the password and access "relevant, critical ... data" on the locked cellphone of Syed Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California on December 2.

"Despite ... a warrant authorizing the search," said prosecutors, "the government has been unable to complete the search because it cannot access the iPhone's encrypted content. Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily."

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Judge forces Apple to help unlock San Bernardino shooter iPhone
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly the recent mass shootings, lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A Quran sits in the living room inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: An identification card for Syed Farook inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A hole in the ceiling could be seen inside the closet area of the rear bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A baby crib is seen inside the baby room of the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A firearm lubricant could be seen in the closet of the front bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Media reporters go in and out of the townhouse where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A praying mat and a cleared out closet in the baby room in the front of the apartment. A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly the recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: Prayer beads are seen laying on the bed alongside personal documents in the rear bedroom inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A closet inside the baby room. A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived, on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 4: A rare first glimpse inside the house where Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik, suspects of the deadly recent mass shootings, lived on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A book sits on a table inside the home of San Bernardino mass murder suspect Syed Farook, December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists squeeze into a child's bedroom in the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the kitchen inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A television crew prepares to do a live report inside a child's bedroom in the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters take pictures of photographs found inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Baby food sits on a kitchen counter inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: A hatchet sits in a kitchen drawer inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Arabic books sit in a closet inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: An Islamic Manners book sits in a bedroom inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: A book about prayer sits on a bedside table inside the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of shooting suspect Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
REDLANDS, CA - DECEMBER 04: Reporters inspect the home of Syed Farook on December 4, 2015 in Redlands, California. The San Bernardino community is mourning as police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Members of the media crowd into the apartment bedroom of San Bernardino shooting suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, in Redlands, Calif., Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited journalists into the townhouse. A book containing passages from the Quran is seen at right. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into a child's room in an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Members of the media crowd into a child's room in an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A member of the media films a wall tapestry displaying religous writing in the living room of an apartment in Redlands, Calif., shared by San Bernardino shooting rampage suspects Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, after the building landlord invited media into the townhouse rented by the California attackers. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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Prosecutors said they needed Apple's help accessing the phone's data to find out who the shooters were communicating with and who may helped plan and carry out the massacre, as well as where they traveled prior to the incident.

The judge ruled Tuesday that the Cupertino-based company had to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to the government in recovering data from the iPhone 5c, including bypassing the auto-erase function and allowing investigators to submit an unlimited number of passwords in their attempts to unlock the phone. Apple has five days to respond to the court if it believes that compliance would be "unreasonably burdensome."

In a statement, United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker called the move an "important step."

"Since the terrorist attack in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015, that took the lives of 14 innocent Americans and shattered the lives of numerous families, my office and our law enforcement partners have worked tirelessly to exhaust every investigative lead in the case," said Decker. "We have made a solemn commitment to the victims and their families that we will leave no stone unturned as we gather as much information and evidence as possible. These victims and families deserve nothing less. The application filed today in federal court is another step — a potentially important step — in the process of learning everything we possibly can about the attack in San Bernardino."

After the shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, authorities said they recovered several cell phones Farook and Malik had tried to destroy and had dropped in a waste bin. The iPhone referenced in the judge's ruling was found in a black Lexus belonging to Farook's family.

The iPhone is owned by Farook's employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which assigned it to him. The county consented to investigators' requests to search its contents.

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Prosecutors argued evidence in Farook's iCloud account indicates that he was in communication with victims whom he and his wife later shot, and phone records show Farook communicated with Malik using his iPhone.

Prosecutors alleged in their filing that Farook may have disabled the iCloud data feature to hide evidence. Although investigators have been able to obtain several backup versions of Farook's iCloud data, the most recent version they've been able to access dates from about a month and a half before the shooting. They said this showed Farook "may have disabled the feature to hide evidence."

Last week FBI Director James Comey referenced the San Bernardino shootings when testifying before Congress about the challenges posed by technology that allows cell phones to lock with no apparent means of override. The new court documents give some details about those hurdles and the ongoing investigation.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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