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Feds Drop Another iPhone Unlocking Case After Perp Remembers His Password

Apple avoids another encryption showdown in New York.
Janus Rose
New York, US
Image: Apple.

The U.S. government's quest to legally force Apple to help it bypass the encryption on iPhones just keeps getting weirder.

First the Department of Justice withdrew its high-profile case surrounding an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, after an "outside party" provided a technique to circumvent the device's security features on the eve of a major courtroom showdown.

Now a similar case in New York involving an older model iPhone 4S has also been dropped, but for a much simpler reason: The phone's owner, a drug dealer named Jun Feng, has apparently remembered his passcode.

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"Yesterday evening, an individual provided the passcode to the iPhone at issue in this case," U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers wrote in a letter to the court Friday evening. "Late last night, the government used that passcode by hand and gained access to the iPhone. Accordingly, the government no longer needs Apple's assistance to unlock the iPhone, and withdraws its application."

According to the Wall Street Journal, that "individual" is Feng himself, who has already been convicted and only recently became aware that his phone was the subject of a national controversy. Before his conviction, Feng said he had forgotten the passcode, prompting the government to demand Apple's assistance.

We have no way of opening this phone short of compelling Apple… or asking the guy who knows the passcode again, which we didn't try.

Julian SanchezApril 23, 2016

Previously, the government had refused to yield in the New York case even after withdrawing a similar order in San Bernardino, which would have forced Apple to build software capable of bypassing the iPhone's security features. Experts have repeatedly warned that doing so would weaken the iPhone's security, exposing millions of innocent users to hackers and petty thieves while failing to stop dedicated criminals from using encryption.

Even more baffling is that Feng's phone is an iPhone 4s running iOS 7, an older version with far less protections than the iOS 9 iPhone 5c in the San Bernardino case. That means it's so old it could have been unlocked using a widely-available $200 forensic tool, completely negating the need to ask Apple for help.

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The All Writs Act, a 227-year-old law that was used to compel Apple's cooperation in both cases, requires that the government first exhaust all other possible methods. But in the New York case, it seems the government overlooked several possibilities—including, apparently, asking Feng for the passcode after he was convicted.

In a scathing 50-page ruling, Judge James Orenstein denied the application for an All Writs order compelling Apple to unlock Feng's phone, casting doubt on the government's claims that it had done everything it could to get into the device on its own. The ruling bolstered critics who argued that the government's true aim in both cases was obtaining a legal precedent that would enable it to order tech companies to build backdoors into their products.

In a statement sent to reporters late Friday, the Department of Justice denied those claims.

"As we have said previously, these cases have never been about setting a court precedent; they are about law enforcement's ability and need to access evidence on devices pursuant to lawful court orders and search warrants," DoJ spokeswoman Emily Pierce wrote in the statement. "In this case, an individual provided the department with the passcode to the locked phone at issue in the Eastern District of New York. Because we now have access to the data we sought, we notified the court of this recent development and have withdrawn our request for assistance."

With the New York case withdrawn, that means the government no longer has any active All Writs cases against Apple. But another case involving a gang member's iPhone 6 Plus, which was first reported by Motherboard, is currently stuck at an impasse in Boston, and an anti-encryption bill recently introduced in Congress promises to become yet another battleground in the government's fight.