Could Apple answer: Was there a third San Bernardino shooter?

San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos says that the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone could answer questions about a possible co-conspirator. 

John Valenzuela/AP/File
San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos (r.), joined by Sheriff John McMahon, speaks during a news conference in San Bernardino, Calif., in September 2015.

As the Apple vs. FBI decryption debate rages, a San Bernardino prosecutor says that Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone could contain evidence of a third shooter at the early December attack.

No evidence has come forward relating to a third conspirator, but the San Bernardino county district attorney is determined to leave no stone unturned in the quest for justice.

"We've never been able to completely eliminate it," said San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, "We know we have some witnesses that said they thought they saw three ... some saw two, some saw one. The majority said two, and the evidence we have up to this point only supports two," Mr. Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik.

Fourteen people were killed during the mass shooting.

According to the brief filed by the district attorney, Michael Ramos, “Although the reports of three individuals were not corroborated, and may ultimately be incorrect, the fact remains that the information contained solely on the seized iPhone could provide evidence to identify, as of yet, unknown co-conspirators.”

During the attacks, some 911 calls reported three shooters. Other eyewitness reports claimed that the suspects were “two men” or “two white men.”

As Mr. Burguan told the Washington Post in December, chaotic situations like the San Bernardino shooting breed confusion, and it is not uncommon for eyewitnesses to remember the same event differently.

“The three of us could be sitting here and somebody could walk in that door and do something, and we may all kind of generally know what they do,” he said, “but I guarantee we’re going to have three different types of details.”

In the brief filed on Thursday, the district attorney expressed concerns that the disputed iPhone may attacked San Bernardino County’s infrastructure with a “cyber pathogen,” as Farook was a county employee.

That's unlikely, cyber security experts told the Associated Press.

“Ramos’s statements are not only misleading to the court, but amount to blatant fear mongering,” wrote one expert, Jonathan Zdziarski, on his blog.

In an email to Ars Technica, a technology news website, Mr. Zdiziarski said that the brief "reads as an amicus designed to mislead the courts into acting irrationally in an attempt to manipulate a decision in the FBI's favor.”

Others have mocked Ramos’ brief on social media. The district attorney fired back, saying that critics are belittling the victims of the terrorist attack.

Although a federal judge has ordered Apple to decrypt the shooter’s phone, Apple continues to fight back, saying that decrypting this one phone could put thousands of consumers privacy at risk. On Friday, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said that if Apple agrees to unlock the phone, it will risk helping authoritarian governments around the world.

Ramos and the FBI say that unlocking the iPhone is a matter of national security.

The US District Court of the Central District of California will hear oral argument on the case on March 22.

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