FBI cracks San Bernardino gunman's cellphone WITHOUT Apple's help - ending controversial court privacy battle Monday March 28,2016The FBI–Apple encryption dispute concerns whether and to what extent courts in the United States can compel manufacturers to assist in unlocking Cell Phones whose contents are photographically protected
What was the fight about?
At the Justice Department's request, a federal judge ordered Apple Inc. last month to help the FBI unlock an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December 2015
Specifically, the government wanted Apple to create software that would override an "auto-wipe" feature which is designed to kick in after anyone makes 10 wrong attempts at guessing the iPhone's passcode. Once that feature is activated, it renders all the data on the phone permanently unreadable.
Apple said it could create the software the government wanted, but it argued vehemently that doing so would be a bad idea. CEO Tim Cook said the order would set a precedent for more government demands, both in the United States and around the world. Apple also said the software could be stolen by hackers and used against other iPhones.
Federal authorities insisted they were only asking for Apple's help in a single case, although prosecutors nationwide have said they wanted similar assistance in other cases where iPhones have been seized. While it's unclear if any useful information was stored on the iPhone, FBI Director James Comey said authorities owed it to the San Bernardino victims to leave no stone unturned in their investigation.
Why did this turn into such a big deal?
The case crystalized some long-simmering frustrations and conflict between the tech industry and law enforcement authorities.
Apple and other tech companies have been steadily increasing their use of encryption and other safeguards to protect their customers' data, following a wave of recent hacking attacks and revelations about government data-collection by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Law enforcement officials, including Comey, have complained that encryption and other data safeguards are helping dangerous people hide their activities, while interfering with the government's ability to investigate crimes.
In the San Bernardino case, Apple drew support from other leading tech companies, computer security experts and civil liberties groups. They filed court briefs arguing the government was going too far in trying to force a company to create software that threatened its own customers' security. Meanwhile, top officials in the Obama administration, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, denounced Apple's stance and accused the company of trying to rewrite the rules for government investigations.
What did the judge decide?
The judge didn't have to rule. Cook had said he was prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But last week, just one day before Magistrate Sheri Pym had planned to hold a hearing on the dispute, the Justice Department asked for a delay. Authorities said an unnamed "outside party" had come forward with a technical solution to unlocking the phone, which the FBI needed time to test out.
Then on Monday March 28,2016, the government reported that it had successfully accessed the iPhone's files and no longer needed Apple's help. For that reason, the Justice Department asked the magistrate to withdraw the order she issued in February 09,2016
The February 09,2016 court order specified that Apple provide assistance to accomplish the following:
- "it will bypass or disable the auto-erase function whether or not it has been enabled" (this user-configurable feature of iOS 8 automatically deletes keys needed to read encrypted data after ten consecutive incorrect attempts)
- "it will enable the FBI to submit passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE for testing electronically via the physical device port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other protocol available"
- "it will ensure that when the FBI submits passcodes to the SUBJECT DEVICE, software running on the device will not purposefully introduce any additional delay between passcode attempts beyond what is incurred by Apple hardware"
Each side can claim a victory: Authorities say they achieved their goal of getting into the iPhone, while Apple successfully resisted a court order that it contends would be harmful to its customers.
Even so, the FBI may have lost some credibility. After repeatedly insisting that only Apple had the means to help authorities unlock the phone, it turned out there was another way.
In the court of public opinion, Apple made a strong case that it was standing up for its customers, and an important principle. But some people may believe the company should have done more to help law enforcement.