FBI Cancels Court Hearing with Apple in 11th Hour

FBI investigators say they may have found a way to access San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook's iPhone information without the company's cooperation.

by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News / March 22, 2016
Protesters, including Victoria Best and Charles Fredricks, hold signs in support of Apple outside of the Apple store in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 23, 2016. (Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

(TNS) — Sidetracking a crucial legal showdown between Apple and the FBI, a federal judge on Monday backed a U.S. Justice Department request to cancel Tuesday's much-anticipated hearing to give the FBI a chance to explore a new way to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terror attackers.

The judge late Monday canceled the hearing, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

In court papers filed Monday, federal government lawyers asked Riverside-based U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to postpone Tuesday's hearing because federal investigators believe they may have found a way to hack the iPhone's security without forcing Apple to help. Federal prosecutors indicated they would report back to the judge by early April.

An unidentified "outside party" provided the FBI with a possible alternative to unlock the iPhone of Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the December terror attack that left 14 people dead, according to court papers. The assistance was offered on Sunday, court papers show, and the FBI now needs time to determine if it will solve the roadblock in the terror probe.

The development could defuse the clash between Apple and the FBI over whether the company can be forced to create a software program that would hack the security of its devices. "If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple," federal prosecutors wrote.

"Our top priority has always been gaining access into the phone used by the terrorist in San Bernardino," a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said.

Apple has warned that such an order would jeopardize the privacy rights of tens of millions of customers, prompting a national debate over the balancing act between the needs of law enforcement to solve crimes and hunt down terror suspects and the privacy rights of a public reliant on smartphones in everyday life.

Apple did not immediately respond to the development.

Pym triggered the showdown between Apple and the FBI in February, when she tentatively ordered Apple to unlock Farook's iPhone. However, she invited legal argument on the unprecedented question, and Apple and the tech industry have responded with a fierce counterattack to the FBI's demand.

Earlier Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook resumed his defense of Apple's position, saying it is critical to limit the government's ability to interfere with the increasing privacy protections being installed through encryption in devices such as smartphones.

The judge was set to consider hours of legal argument on Tuesday, when suburban courthouse was expected to be inundated with hundreds of media members, public officials, privacy advocates and representatives of the victims' families in the San Bernardino attacks.

Law enforcement officials and the families have backed the FBI's position, arguing that the demand of Apple is an isolated request and does not pose a broader threat to privacy protections. Politicians have also backed the government, expressing concern about Apple interfering with a crucial terror investigation.

Even if the San Bernardino case moves forward without resolution of the issue, it will not go away. A similar case has been unfolding in New York, where a federal judge recently sided with Apple and refused the FBI's request to force the company to unlock an iPhone in a drug case. Apple disclosed in that case that it has faced at least a dozen such requests to unlock iPhones around the country.

However, Apple and many digital rights groups have argued that Congress, not the courts, should address the issue, which has sparked a national debate.

©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.