Apple’s battle with the FBI is over — at least for now.
As a result, the government “no longer requires the assistance from Apple” to break into the phone — and is dropping its efforts to compel Apple to crack its own iPhone encryption against its will.
In some sense, Apple is now off the hook. For the time being, the two sides have sidestepped a massive fight over the competing interests of national security and digital privacy — a fight in which Apple might have looked like it was siding against efforts to combat terrorism.
But the FBI’s sudden success in circumventing Apple’s security measures might raise new questions about whether Apple’s products are truly ironclad. It will also lead to heightened speculation over the “outside party” that assisted the government at the last minute — and criticism from some quarters over the FBI’s failure to hack into an iPhone on its own.
“Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “We sought an order compelling Apple to help unlock the phone to fulfill a solemn commitment to the victims of the San Bernardino shooting — that we will not rest until we have fully pursued every investigative lead related to the vicious attack.”
Apple’s faceoff with the government started just over five weeks ago, when the Justice Department obtained a court order compelling Apple to assist the FBI in bypassing the lock screen of the iPhone 5C that Farook had used. Authorities had found the phone after Farook and his wife killed 14 people and wounded 22 more in San Bernardino, California, in December. But they were unable to unlock it and feared that too many attempts to guess the passcode would cause the phone to wipe its memory completely.
Apple fought the order vigorously in court and in the court of public opinion
Apple fought the order vigorously in court and in the court of public opinion, arguing that any such assistance should be required by legislatures and not a judge. The government said it was seeking the company’s help in just this one case, but Apple said that creating a workaround for one iPhone’s encryption would set a “dangerous” precedent and imperil the security of all iPhone users.
Last week, less than 24 hours before a hearing was scheduled in the case, the government said it might have found an alternative method to gain access to the phone that didn’t require Apple’s assistance. Previously, prosecutors had argued that only Apple was capable of breaking in. Apple claimed that it didn’t even have the technology to do so and would have had to create a new version of iOS it dubbed “govtOS.”
The details of the government’s newfound method of accessing the phone aren’t clear — but clues suggest that the Israel-based security firm Cellebrite could be the FBI’s white knight.
The FBI “successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone,” said Melanie Newman, a Justice Department spokeswoman. Though she said that investigators were “currently reviewing the information on the phone,” she did not say whether there was any useful information on the phone at all. We may never know.
Apple did not immediately comment on the case Monday night.
Meanwhile, Apple is also fighting government orders to assist in bypassing an iPhone lock screen in an unrelated drug case in Brooklyn, New York. It’s not clear whether the government could now use its new method in that case.
“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” Newman said. “We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors.”
UPDATE: March 28, 7:43 p.m. ET: The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the government’s efforts, has issued an official statement in response to the FBI’s move to end its attempt of forcing Apple to unlock the iPhone in the San Bernardino investigation.
“This case was never about just one phone,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney at the ACLU. “It was about an unprecedented power-grab by the government that was a threat to everyone’s security and privacy. Unfortunately, this news appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight over whether the FBI can force Apple to undermine the security of its own products. We would all be more secure if the government ended this reckless effort.”
UPDATE: March 28, 9:34 p.m. ET: Apple has issued an official statement:
From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.
We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.
Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.
This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy. Apple remains committed to participating in that discussion.
UPDATE: March 28, 9:58 p.m. ET: FBI Assistant Director David Bowdich said in a statement:
The FBI cannot comment on the technical steps that were taken to obtain the contents of the county-issued iPhone, nor the identity of the third party that came forward as a result of the publicity generated by the court order. During the past week, to include the weekend, extensive testing of the iPhone was done by highly skilled personnel to ensure that the contents of the phone would remain intact once technical methods were applied. The full exploitation of the phone and follow-up investigative steps are continuing.
My law enforcement partners and I made a commitment to the victims of the 12/2 attack in San Bernardino and to the American people that no stone would be left unturned in this case. We promised to explore every investigative avenue in order to learn whether the San Bernardino suspects were working with others, were targeting others, or whether or not they were supported by others.
While we continue to explore the contents of the iPhone and other evidence, these questions may not be fully resolved, but I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before and that the investigative process is moving forward.