FBI Cracks San Bernardino Shooter’s iPhone, Drops Lawsuit Against Apple

Using an unnamed third party the FBI was able to access the encrypted information ending the contentious lawsuit that sparked a national controversy.

by Sean Sposito, San Francisco Chronicle / March 29, 2016
FBI Director James Comey as he testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee over Apple's iPhone Encryption. C-SPAN

(TNS) -- The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday announced it was dropping an effort to have Apple defeat privacy safeguards the company had built into its software after federal agents managed to read the data encrypted on a phone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.

Efforts to bypass that device’s pass code without Apple’s intervention proved successful, said the Department of Justice. The iPhone’s operating system is designed to prevent such attempts, but security researchers have identified some weaknesses in that software.

The Department of Justice announced last week that it had obtained technical help from an unnamed party, prompting it to ask a federal court in Riverside to postpone a hearing originally scheduled for last Tuesday on an order the government was seeking to compel Apple’s assistance.

It wasn’t immediately clear what methods the “outside party” used to read the data.

Privacy vs. security

The breakthrough marks the end of one battle between a technology company and the government. But the war over privacy and security that this case came to symbolize rages on. Apple faces 12 similar orders to assist law enforcement in unlocking iPhones.

And other technology companies, many of which filed briefs supporting Apple’s position, are similarly building stronger protections into their software that may stymie government attempts to read their users’ data.

In recent remarks at an industry event in Austin, President Obama called on the technology industry to find a middle ground on encryption. Yet compromise has been hard to find. Privacy and security advocates say the revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alarmed many about the ability of government agents to spy on citizens. Mistrust has run high on both sides.

By finding a way to break into the San Bernardino iPhone without Apple’s intervention, the Department of Justice has avoided, for now, the possibility that a court might rule against it. But the government said it might seek court orders if technical means fail in the future.

“As the government noted in its filing today, the FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by this Court Order,” said Department of Justice spokeswoman Melanie Newman. “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. 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.”

A federal order

In February, a federal magistrate in Riverside ordered Apple to write software altering the iPhone’s security protections, which would help federal agents more easily bypass that phone’s encryption.

Apple had contended that such a measure would give the government a “dangerous power” to weaken security protections in devices used by hundreds of millions of people.

The Cupertino company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Denelle Dixon-Thayer, chief business and legal officer for Mozilla, the nonprofit Web browser maker, said in a statement that the FBI should have explored all technical options before turning to the courts.

“The government’s decision to drop the case doesn’t change the need to have the broader discussion of what limits should be placed on law enforcement’s ability to compel assistance from tech companies,” she said. “If anything, today’s development makes this question even more important, because this is a step that the FBI should have taken before deciding to start a legal fight with Apple.”

Mozilla, along with dozens of other technology companies and organizations, had filed briefs with the Riverside court supporting Apple’s position.

Newman said that the FBI is reviewing the information on the phone, “consistent with standard investigatory procedures.”

Battle is far from over

The government’s withdrawal in this case does not mean that the battle over encryption is over, said security researcher Dan Kaminsky, who has publicly supported Apple’s stance in the San Bernardino case.

“It’s not merely that the war is continuing,” he said. “Damage has been done. The largest technology company in the world just had to spend an enormous amount of its resources and attention not making better products, not making more secure products, but fighting off a demand for insecurity.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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