Israeli company Cellebrite has been appointed by the FBI to find an alternative way to unlock the iPhone 5c involved in the San Bernardino shootings, according to Israeli newspaper the Yedioth Ahronoth and Reuters. Cellebrite has been developing forensics solutions for law enforcement and intelligence.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice asked that the first hearing be vacated because a third party offered to help unlock the iPhone 5c. Apple did not oppose and the hearing was postponed.
Now, the FBI has to work with this third party and figure out whether this alternative solution will pan out. The Justice Department will update the court before April 5, and the case could be dropped if this method works.
In February, the original government request was made under the All Writs Act. But the All Writs Act doesn’t work if there’s an alternative remedy. So the government had to justify that only Apple could unlock this iPhone.
And this is exactly what they did in the Justice Department’s first motion:
According to the transcript of Monday’s call between Apple, the Justice Department and the court obtained by Mashable, the third party showed up at the last minute.
“We only learned about this possibility today, this morning, about this possibility that Apple is not necessary,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison said. “And we have a good faith basis at this point in order to bring it up.”
And yet, until today, there was a bit of mystery surrounding this third party. It looks like it could be Cellebrite. The FBI signed a contract with Cellebrite right before this call, on the same day:
Edit: It looks like the contract in question was just for a license renewal for existing tools and services. The actual contract is probably still classified. And again, it could be Cellebrite or another company.
TechCrunch reached out to Cellebrite but the company declined to comment.
Republican California Representative Darrell Issa has been critical of the Department of Justice’s strategy and this week’s U-turn proves that the FBI and the Justice Department may have used the All Writs Act too quickly. “It’s important that the government take all steps possible before asking for wide-reaching powers that would dramatically impact the future of cybersecurity for years to come,” Issa said in a statement to Politico. “It’s now clear that, in this case, they hadn’t.”
It’s possible that Cellebrite has found a security tool in iOS 9 in very little time and is now confident that it can access the data.
It’s also possible that the FBI knew this option existed all along and the Justice Department was pessimistic about the case. It’s better to postpone and then drop the case than setting a precedent in favor of privacy and Apple.
Either way, on Monday’s conference call, Apple made it clear that the company wanted more details about this new exploit. That’s also why the case wasn’t dropped just yet as Apple wants to fix this security hole.
And if the second scenario is true, then it means that the FBI was trying to leverage a terrorist tragedy to set a precedent. We already knew that it wasn’t just about one iPhone and that the FBI had been looking for ways to weaken iOS encryption ever since iOS 8 came out 18 months ago.