In court papers filed on Monday, the government announced it had cracked the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters and no longer needs Apple's help to unlock the device. The government intends to drop the legal case against the company.
Apple made headlines last month after it refused to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the shooters. Apple's stance ignited a national conversation over individual privacy versus safety. Talks between Apple and federal authorities collapsed, and the government filed a motion in court. A federal judge ordered that Apple provide "reasonable technical assistance" to investigators. But Apple refused to comply with the order, which would have required Apple to build software to unlock the phone; this software does not currently exist.
CEO Tim Cook publicly opposed the judge’s order in an open letter posted on the company’s website. “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers—including tens of millions of American citizens—from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals,” he wrote.
With the code cracked, the FBI is currently focused on reviewing the information contained in the phone. A third party whom the government refuses to identify apparently unlocked the phone. In its filing dismissing the suit, the government does not mention what methods the FBI used to unlock the phone, nor does it indicate what evidence related to the attack was found on it. A government official said the method to unlock the phone was procured from a private entity and not developed by any government agency. Officials declined to say whether these same methods could be used to open prior versions of the iPhone using other operating systems.
The FBI hinted it may have found a way to exhume the contents of the phone without Apple’s help last week. While the filing puts a halt to the current debate over whether the government has the authority to force software companies to write software to aid in criminal investigations, there are diverging opinions over how secure electronic
communications should be and to what degree corporations should be accountable when helping the government access the data of their consumers.
Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, says the battle over digital access is far from over. “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.”
The FBI may never tell Apple how exactly it opened the iPhone, but the tech giant says it will “continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.”
The Justice Department's success in cracking the iPhone has implications for other cases involving locked iPhones. A federal magistrate judge refused to grant an order requested by the government last month that asked Apple to unlock the contents of an iPhone used by a Brooklyn drug dealer. The Justice Department looks to appeal that decision.
A federal law enforcement official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity said it is too early to tell if the Justice Department can use its method on iPhones involved in other cases. The phone in the Brooklyn case was an iPhone 5S running the iOS 7 mobile software.
“Courts should be skeptical going forward when the government claims it has no other option besides compelling a device maker’s assistance,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, a cryptography fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. “Now that the F.B.I. has accessed this iPhone, it should disclose the method for doing so to Apple. Apple ought to have the chance to fix that security issue, which likely affects many other iPhones.”
The government should expect technology companies to make their devices harder to crack with each new update, says Eric Berg, special counsel for Foley & Lardner and a former Justice Department attorney. But another company will test the boundaries of privacy and security soon enough.
"It's only a matter of time," he said.