The FBI has unlocked Farook’s iPhone 5c involved in the San Bernardino shooting using an alternative method that didn’t involve Apple. Given this new development, the Department of Justice is dropping the case. The government has been evasive about this alternative method and didn’t provide additional details.
The filing is very succinct. “The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by Court’s Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016,” U.S. attorney Eileen M. Decker and assistant U.S. attorney Tracy L. Wilkison wrote.
Update: Apple has supplied the following statement to TechCrunch:
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.
After five weeks of intense back and forth between Apple and the Department of Justice, the two parties were supposed to face off in a courtroom in Riverside, California. But last week, the FBI declared at the very last minute that it might not need Apple’s help after all. The Department of Justice asked to postpone the hearing. Apple didn’t object, and the hearing was postponed.
The Justice Department was supposed to file an update before April 5 to say whether the FBI could access Farook’s iPhone. With a week to spare, the government filed the following today:
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.
That’s why the government is dropping the case. Now that the FBI has found a successful alternative to Apple’s intervention, the All Writs Act doesn’t work, making the original request invalid. And of course, now that the FBI has Farook’s data, there is no case in the first place. The San Bernardino investigation will follow its course.
The mysterious third party who helped the government remains unidentified and the government doesn’t have to disclose this alternative method. Apple will certainly ask for more details about this new exploit so that the company can fix it in future iOS releases. But at this point, it’s unclear whether Apple will get additional details about this exploit.
According to CNN, the Department of Justice said the method only works on this phone in particular. But it’s hard to believe this argument as there’s no reason the FBI wouldn’t be able to unlock other iPhones 5c running the same version of iOS 9. Moreover, if the FBI found a software exploit, this exploit should work with all iPhones running on this version of iOS 9 (and most likely the current version of iOS, iOS 9.3) — even those with a Secure Enclave and a Touch ID sensor. It’s like the government wants to make sure it can ask Apple to unlock other phones in the future.
All the last developments in this case are blurry. If I try to recap, the FBI is working with an unidentified third party using an unknown method to unlock an iPhone with unknown data. We don’t even know if the FBI actually unlocked Farook’s iPhone. What if the Justice Department was pessimistic about the case and thought it was better to postpone and then drop the case than setting a precedent in favor of privacy and Apple?
Either way, this is still a win for Apple.
Apple has resisted the government’s request because the company thought it would set a precedent and it would become a slippery slope. Over the past few years, and especially with the release of iOS 8, Apple has made its devices and services more secure by design. It is the best way to keep the government away as Apple can’t just use a secret key to unlock its iPhones — that key didn’t exist before the iPhone 5c case, and still doesn’t.
Apple also wanted to avoid creating a backdoor that would render all iOS devices vulnerable to hackers and foreign governments. A backdoor for the FBI would have been as useful for other organizations, as well.
Now let’s step back for a minute and reflect on the government’s course of actions in this case. Going forward, it’s going to be hard to trust the government when it comes to encryption issues as the government has insisted for months that it was impossible to unlock this iPhone without Apple. The government was either negligent or blatantly lying.
The All Writs Act is a serious matter and the government shouldn’t have used it without exploring all options first. And if the government was trying to set a precedent and leverage a terrorist attack to make Apple comply with a privacy-invading request, then it’s a shameful strategy.