Apple’s battle with the FBI is over — at least for now.
The U.S. Department of Justice said Monday that it was able to successfully access data stored on an iPhone that was used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook.
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.
In other words, Apple is off the hook. At least in this case.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said:
The government has asked a United States Magistrate Judge in Riverside, California to vacate her order compelling Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the iPhone that was used by one of the terrorists who murdered 14 innocent Americans in San Bernardino on December 2nd of last year. 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.
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. Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack. The San Bernardino victims deserve nothing less.
In a separate statement, Melanie Newman, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said:
As the government noted in its filing today, the FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by this Court Order. The FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.
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. 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.”
Apple’s face off 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 an iPhone used by the gunman.
Apple fought the order vigorously in court and the public, arguing that 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 security system would endanger all iPhone users.
Last week, less than 24 hours before a hearing was scheduled, the government said it might have found an alternative method to gain access to the phone that didn’t require Apple’s assistance. Previously, the Justice Department had argued that only Apple was capable of breaking in.
The details of the newfound method of accessing the phone aren’t clear — but clues suggest that the Israel-based security firm Cellebrite could be the key.
The government didn’t say whether it got any useful information off the phone at all, and we may never know.
Apple is also fighting government orders to assist in bypassing an iPhone lock screen in a similar but unrelated case in Brooklyn, New York. It’s not clear whether the government could now use its new method in that case.