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FBI Unlocks San Bernardino iPhone and Drops Case Against Apple

The abrupt end to a confrontation that had transfixed the tech industry was a victory for Apple, which said helping investigators break into the iPhone would have set a dangerous precedent.
Syed Rizwan Farook (R) and Tashfeen Malik (L), identified by the FBI as the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shooting. Photo via FBI/EPA

The US Justice Department (DOJ) has succeeded in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters and has dropped its legal case against Apple, it said on Monday ending a high-stakes legal battle but leaving the broader struggle over encryption unresolved.

The abrupt end to a confrontation that had transfixed the tech industry was a victory for Apple, which vehemently opposed a court order obtained by the DOJ that would have required it to write new software to get into the iPhone.

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"From the beginning, we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a back door into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent," Apple said in a statement late on Monday.

"As a result of the government's dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought."

But the larger fight over law enforcement access to encrypted information is by no means over. The technology industry is adamant that anything that helps authorities bypass the security features of tech products will undermine security for everyone.

Government officials are equally insistent that all manner of criminal investigations will be crippled without access to phone data.

At issue in the case was a county-owned iPhone used by Rizwan Farook, one of the husband-and-wife shooters in the December rampage in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people were killed and 22 wounded. The couple died in a shootout with police after the attack.

After saying for weeks in court filings and congressional testimony that Apple possessed the "exclusive technical means" to unlock Farook's phone — a claim disputed by tech experts who said there could be various ways to get into the device, especially given the government's resources — the DOJ unexpectedly announced on the eve of a court hearing last week that an unidentified third party had presented it with a technique that might open the phone without help from Apple.

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Related: The FBI Says a 'Third Party' May Know How to Unlock the iPhone Without Apple's Help

In a two-page court filing on Monday, the DOJ said the government had "successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple."

It asked a federal magistrate in Riverside, California, to withdraw the order compelling Apple to assist.

Apple had argued that the government request and resulting court order were a massive overreach that would give courts unlimited authority to force private companies to work as their agents. It argued that Congress had specifically declined to give the government such powers when it comes to electronic surveillance and data collection.

"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 said in its statement.

Tech industry leaders including Google, Facebook and Microsoft and more than two dozen other companies filed legal briefs supporting Apple. The DOJ received support from law enforcement groups and six relatives of San Bernardino victims.

The DOJ's apparent discovery of an iPhone hacking technique presents thorny questions about how that knowledge will be shared.

If the government tells Apple about the details, the company would presumably fix whatever vulnerability was used and thus render the method ineffective. If the government withholds the information, Apple could face a public perception problem about the security of its phones.

There are also a number of pending cases across the country where law enforcement officials are asking for access to iPhones. It is not clear if they will have access to the break-in technique.

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Related: Edward Snowden Calls 'Bullshit' on FBI's Claim That It Can't Unlock iPhone