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DOJ Pulls Its Request to Apple, Says It's Already Hacked San Bernardino iPhone

The government is backing down on its request to have Apple write software to break into the iPhone 5c used by a dead terrorism suspect.

by Janus Rose
Mar 28 2016, 11:33pm

Image: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After weeks of tense argument and speculation, the US government is officially withdrawing its February motion compelling Apple to build software that can help the FBI hack into the iPhone of deceased San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, saying it has successfully accessed the phone's data through an undisclosed alternative method.

"The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance of Apple," the government's attorneys wrote in a court filing Monday evening. "Accordingly, the government hereby requests that the Order Compelling Apple Inc to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016 be vacated."

"The FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures," reads a statement from a Department of Justice spokeswoman sent to reporters Monday evening.

The technique investigators used to crack the phone was not disclosed, and likely won't be any time soon

However, the DoJ hinted that while the San Bernardino case may have concluded, its war against encryption is far from over.

"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," the DoJ's statement continues.

"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."

The technique investigators used to crack the phone was not disclosed, and likely won't be any time soon due to its status as "sources and methods" in an active terrorism investigation, which are exempt from disclosure under public records laws.

The details of those methods has been the subject of intense speculation ever since the government delayed a highly-anticipated hearing in the case, saying that an "outside party" had demonstrated a way to circumvent the phone's security features—notably a safeguard that erases the phone's encryption key after the passcode is entered incorrectly 10 times, making the data permanently inaccessible.

One method suggested by several experts is called "NAND mirroring," a technique involving copying the contents of the phone's NAND memory chip and simply flashing a fresh copy back onto the chip when the maximum number of attempts is exceeded. On Monday morning, mobile forensics expert Jonathan Zdziardski posted a test video demonstrating that the method could indeed work on Farook's iPhone. FBI director James Comey has dismissed the technique and one the Bureau has tried, but doesn't work.

Another theory emerged after an Israeli newspaper reported that the Israeli iPhone-cracking firm Cellebrite had partnered with the FBI to break into the phone without Apple's help, suggesting the company had developed an exploit to break into the terrorist's phone. However, that report only cites an anonymous source and is still unconfirmed, despite widespread coverage and some suggestive winking from the company's employees.

With so many layers and branching developments, the case has often been hard to keep up with.

It all started when a court ordered Apple to create and digitally sign a fake version of its iOS operating system, which would enable the FBI to disable Apple's safeguards and brute-force the device by trying all possible PIN combinations. Tech companies, cryptographers and legal experts warn that doing so would endanger global cybersecurity and unleash a dangerous precedent for compelling companies to do the government's bidding.

But with rumors flying that Apple is already working on technical improvements that will prevent future iPhones from being able to install government-mandated malware, there's no doubt the encryption cat and mouse game will continue.

Update: Apple has released a statement.

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.