FBI drops case against Apple as the agency mysteriously gains access to terrorist iPhone

Thursday, March 31, 2016 by

(Cyberwar.news) After a tense month-long standoff with Apple, the FBI has dropped its case against the tech giant after mysteriously gaining access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

As reported by Wired, the Justice Department filed a motion on Monday asking a California court to vacate its earlier decision ordering Apple to create a software tool that would help authorities break into the locked phone.

“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,” United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. “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…. 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.”

Last week, a day before a scheduled court hearing to hash out the dispute, the Justice Dept., in a surprise move, asked the court to delay the hearing after discovering a possible way to access the phone without Apple’s assistance. The government had repeatedly insisted to Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym that the FBI was unable to access the phone without assistance from Apple, so the sudden decision to seek a delay surprised interested observers of the case.

Since the request for delay, there has been much speculation throughout the cybersecurity community about what method or technology the government is using to access the phone. In a call with reporters last week, FBI Director James Comey said that a method called NAND mirroring – which some in the cybersecurity community said was the FBI’s best option – did not work, and the director did not elaborate.

As Wired noted further:

The government’s announcement … leaves that question unanswered. Apple told reporters last week that if the feds did find a way into the phone, it would seek discovery to learn the method that was used in order to confirm that the feds did indeed get into the device and didn’t just claim it did to save face and withdraw from the case. But Apple may never be able to get an answer to that question if the government classified the method.


Also unanswered is a question about whether the phone even contains any useful information regarding the government’s investigation into the San Bernardino attacks that it had not already gotten through iCloud backups of the phone.

In February a federal court ordered Apple to create a software tool that would enable FBI investigators to bypass the iPhone’s security mechanisms, thereby allowing the government to conduct what is known as a “brute force” password attack, to learn the device’s pass code.

Apple attorneys claimed that doing so would essentially give the government carte blanche access all iPhones, at any time, and perhaps without a warrant. Apple further argued that a cornerstone of its marketing to consumers is that the encryption used in iPhones and other devices is hack-proof and, therefore, secure, and that a government-ordered program to break that encryption would compromise the company’s security guarantee.

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