LAPD iPhone Hack isn't as Big a Deal as You Think

While the FBI was trying to force Apple to bypass security features on an iPhone 5c recovered in the San Bernardino mass shooting, Los Angeles police were successfully hacking into and recovering data from an iPhone 5s in a separate homicide case. If LAPD was able to hack into the iPhone 5s on its own, then why did the FBI insist it needed Apple's help with the iPhone 5c? The answer is simple: different operating systems, different security features.

LAPD hacked older, hackable, iOS versionLAPD hacked older, hackable, iOS version

The iPhone 5s belonged to April Jace, who was shot and killed in what appears to be a domestic violence incident in May 2014. Her husband, Michael Jace (known for his character Julien Lowe on "The Shield"), was arrested and reportedly called police to report what happened.

The two were apparently arguing over their relationship via text messages shortly before the shooting, according to the Los Angeles Times. Since Mrs. Jace's iPhone was locked with a passcode, police weren't able to see its contents or the alleged text message exchange.

Police unsuccessfully tried to get into her phone's data, and in 2015 obtained a court order for help from Apple. No data was recovered with Apple's help, and the L.A. District Attorney's office failed with its own attempts earlier this year.

In March, however, an independent forensics expert was able to access the phone's contents and by April law enforcement as well as Mr. Jayce's legal team were examining the data.

In contrast, the FBI wasn't able to access the data on the iPhone 5c recovered from the San Bernardino mass shooting so it enlisted Apple's help to override the passcode. When Apple said it didn't have the means to do that, the agency obtained a court order compelling the company to create a hackable version of iOS. Apple argued it shouldn't because the government didn't have the authority to issue such an order, and that creating an intentionally hackable version of iOS posed a serious security and privacy risk.

Only hours before the two were scheduled to defend their positions in court, the FBI said it found a third party with the means to hack into the iPhone 5c. The unspecified hack worked, so the FBI dropped its fight with Apple.

The big technical difference between the two cases comes down to the iPhones law enforcement was trying to access. Since the LAPD homicide took place in May 2014, the iPhone 5s was running iOS 7, which didn't offer full device encryption. iOS 8, which added that feature, wasn't released until September, well after the phone was seized.

The FBI's iPhone 5c was recovered in December 2015, after iOS 9 was available. Even if the iPhone 5c hadn't been updated to the newest iOS version, it was running at least iOS 8 and its more secure full device encryption.

The big surprise in the LAPD case isn't that police hacked into the iPhone 5s; it's that it took so long. Tools like IP-BOX are readily available to law enforcement and make short order of unlocking iPhones running older iOS versions. According to IP-BOX maker TEEL Technologies, it takles between six seconds and 17 hours to unlock an iPhone. It takes longer for the device to be shipped than it does to unlock an iPhone.

LAPD didn't do anything remarkable with their iPhone unlock, and it wouldn't even be news if the Los Angeles Times hadn't picked up the story and compared it to the FBI's iPhone unlocking fight—and if the suspect wasn't an actor from the TV series "The Shield."