Apple unable to power on iPhone of teen lost at sea

In a conference call on Tuesday night, an Apple team leader informed attorneys for the families of Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen that they were unable to restore Stephanos’ badly-corroded iPhone 6 to working order.

Austin and his friend Perry Cohen, both 14, went missing in July 2015 during a fishing trip off the coast of Jupiter, Florida. The U.S. Coast Guard found their boat during a search and rescue operation last year, but the boat was set adrift before it could be towed ashore by salvage teams. A Norwegian supply ship in March 2015 happened upon the 19-foot vessel about 100 miles off the coast of Bermuda. Stephanos’ iPhone 6 was found in a storage compartment in which it had sat in salt water for eight months.

The iPhone was meticulously disassembled by an Apple forensics team, which cleaned its components and performed a chemical report as part of a thorough diagnostics process. The iPhone was sent to Apple having suffered a significant amount of salt corrosion. Despite their best efforts, the Apple team were unable to get the iPhone to power on. Apple has informed the families of the result and the families may decide to pursue other options to retrieve data from the device.

Pam Cohen, Perry’s mother, said in a statement: “We learned yesterday that Apple went as far as they could to try to get Austin’s iPhone working, which, as Apple advised, was the first step in the process of retrieving information that might help us understand what happened to the boys. Apple also made it clear that getting the iPhone to power up was its only commitment to Blu Stephanos, which differs from what we heard from his attorney in court. For the generous efforts by Apple’s engineers, who we understand worked tirelessly to try to help us, we are so very grateful. According to Apple, there are other experts in the field who may be able to pick up where Apple left off, to continue the work. Apple has offered to securely hand the iPhone off to an expert in this technology if the families can agree on such an expert. We look forward to working cooperatively with Austin’s family toward this transition. We are not giving up on the iPhone’s potential for evidence until all viable efforts have been exhausted.”

MacDailyNews Take: Kudos to Apple for trying to get Austin’s iPhone to power back up. Hopefully, even without being able to power up the device, the data inside can still be extracted by different means by other experts.

11 Comments

  1. This is very different from the San Bernadino case since that involved requiring Apple make their all products insecure everyone worldwide to satisfy the FBI in one investigation of one crime.

    1. That is not the way I understand it. Apple could have un-encrypted the phone without telling the FBI how and without risking security for any other iPhone user.

      I think the problem was the government cannot compel Apple to do something (ie create the tools need to un-encrypt). Since Apple had never un-encrypted their phones before, Apple did not have the tools to do it and would have to create the tools to comply. That is where Apple “won” and the govt “lost”.

      As you said, this situation is still different from San Bernadino.

      1. If Apple un-encrypts one iPhone in response to a request by one government agency, it cannot plausibly refuse to do so for *every* government agency or private party that can obtain a valid judicial order in any jurisdiction. So, it is simply not the case that complying with the San Bernardino order would not have risked security for other iPhone users.

        If the FBI can force compliance with an order from a US magistrate, so can the Chinese security agencies with an order from one of the People’s Courts. If an Assistant US Attorney can apply for a warrant, a private divorce lawyer can get a subpoena. The issue of whether Apple could be subjected to that burden was (and is) an integral part of the dispute. The argument about having to write new software was just a bolstering argument.

    1. Apple failed and this failure deserves praise? You must be one of those people who believe all children deserve a prize just for breathing. Gotta keep those precious snowflake egos pumped, can’t have ’em suffer the indignity of laziness, negligence, and self-inflicted ignorance.

      1. I don’t know what cruel, mean-spirited world you live in, but in mine I tend to give credit for people who do the best they can, even if the result of that effort isn’t one that I would prefer.

        The rest of your post is nonsense–I mean that literally. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  2. The fundamental problem is that due to the salt corrosion, the iPhone cannot be made to power up. Therefore any encrypted data in the memory chip will remain encrypted.

    Specialists may be able to recover the data directly from the chip, but it would still need to be unencrypted somehow and that requires other parts of the iPhone to be working.

  3. I have a very naive question for everyone here. With the phone being an Apple device, designed and engineered by Apple engineers why then does the phone have to go to an outside “specialist”? Wouldn’t their own engineers have this kind of expertise? The other thing is, I live here in Jupiter, Fl. There is so much more to this story, “money”. Many of us expect to see a large lawsuit and the phone’s data etc., would be a tool used as part of this case for reason of liability or perhaps negligence. Absurd. This is such a tragic story that goes beyond the phone. Two best friends are lost at sea and one family is going after the other for blood now. Liability and blame.

    1. The answer to your question also has to do, in part, with money. Apple does have the expertise and resources to equal any outside firm’s skill at cracking an iPhone, if they decided to do so. They have quite deliberately chosen not to invest the considerable resources necessary to develop means that could readily be used to invade user privacy.

      To read the data on the memory chips of a locked or inoperable device, if possible at all, would require tools and skills that Apple does not currently have. It can therefore respond to requests and demands to decrypt its devices by honestly saying that it does not have the means to do it.

      Otherwise, the company would be deluged with requests, writs, and subpoenas—not only in the US, but in China and all the other countries where it does business—demanding its aid to decrypt thousands of devices a year. That would not only be a distraction from Apple’s core businesses, but would undercut its assurances to customers that their data is secure. Any cracking method used on that scale would sooner or later leak and become generally available to criminals and rogue governments.

      1. I am not sure I buy that. In this particular instance the article says that the phone was literally exposed to months of salt-water damage–which more so that fresh water, wrecks havoc with electronic components.

        Considering the myriad of problems that could develop from such treatment of an electronic device, who’s to say that Apple has the tech at hand to recover that data?

        If they could have done so, they probably would because it would have been a public relations coup for the company,

        That they didn’t pretty much implies that they couldn’t.

    2. I think it is strange that people think specialists are all equivalent. Do people really think that “ability to repair several damaged delicate electronic components” is that similar to “able to design and build delicate electronic components from scratch” ?

      People think engineer means “wizard in all things I don’t understand myself.” That’s not how it works. Specialists are called that for a reason – they are doing something unusual. Apple’s focus is not usually repairing severely damaged components, so why would they seek out and hire people with that very niche skill-set?

      Modern high-tech devices are extremely complicated products. I’d be very surprised if Apple has the best people in the world when it comes to restoring damaged devices. Why would they? That isn’t their business. There are organizations that do that, and charge a LOT of money for it.

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