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FBI unlocks gunman's iPhone through 'third party' after Apple battle

Published 29/03/2016

Apple argued that helping the FBI hack the iPhone would set a dangerous precedent (AP)
Apple argued that helping the FBI hack the iPhone would set a dangerous precedent (AP)

The extraordinary legal fight pitting the Obama administration against technology giant Apple ended unexpectedly after the FBI said it used a mysterious method without Apple's help to hack into a California mass shooter's iPhone.

Questions remain about how the sudden development would affect privacy in the future, and what happens the next time the US government is frustrated by digital security lockout features.

Government prosecutors had asked a federal judge to vacate a disputed order forcing Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone, saying it was no longer necessary.

The FBI used the unspecified technique to access data on an iPhone used by gunman Syed Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after they killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December.

The US justice department said agents are now reviewing the information on the phone.

The government's brief court filing, in the US district court for the Central District of California, provided no details about how the FBI got into the phone. Nor did it identify the non-government "outside party" who showed agents how to get past the phone's security defences.

Authorities had previously said only Apple had the ability to help them unlock the phone.

Apple responded by saying it will continue to increase the security of its products.

"We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along," the company added in a statement, while reiterating its argument that the government's demand for Apple's help was wrong.

"This case should never have been brought," the company said.

FBI assistant director David Bowdich said examining the iPhone was part of the authorities' effort to learn if the San Bernardino shooters had worked with others or had targeted any other victims.

"I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before," he said in a statement.

The dispute ignited a fierce internet-era debate that pitted digital privacy rights against national security concerns and reinvigorated discussion over the impact of encryption on law enforcement's ability to serve the public.

Californian representative Darrell Issa said that while it was "preferable" that the government gained access to the iPhone without Apple's help, the fundamental question of the extent to which the government should be able to access personal information remains unanswered.

Republican Mr Issa, a critic of the administration's domestic surveillance practices, said the government's legal action against Apple raised constitutional and privacy questions and that "those worried about our privacy should stay wary" because this does not mean "their quest for a secret key into our devices is over".

The surprise development punctured the temporary perception that Apple's security might have been good enough to keep consumers' personal information safe even from the US government.

And while Barack Obama's administration created a policy for disclosing such security vulnerabilities to companies, the policy allows for a vulnerability to be kept secret if there is a law enforcement or national security rationale for doing so.

The withdrawal of the court process also takes away Apple's ability to legally request details on the method the FBI used in this case. Apple attorneys said last week that they hoped the government would share that information with them if it proved successful.

The Justice Department would not comment on any future disclosure of the method to Apple or the public.

Denelle Dixon-Thayer, chief legal and business officer at Mozilla, which makes the Firefox web browser, said in a statement that "fixing vulnerabilities makes for better products and better security for everyone" and the "government needs to take that into account" and disclose the vulnerability to Apple.

Apple CEO Tim Cook had argued that helping the FBI hack the iPhone would set a dangerous precedent, making all iPhone users vulnerable, if Apple complied with the court order. He as well as FBI Director James Comey has said that Congress needs to take up the issue.

Apple was headed for a courtroom showdown with the government last week, until federal prosecutors abruptly asked for a postponement so they could test a potential solution brought to them by a party outside of the US government last Sunday.

A law enforcement official said the FBI would continue to aid its local and state partners with gaining evidence in cases - implying that the method would be shared with them.

High on the waiting list for assistance is likely to be Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, who told a US House panel earlier this month that he has 205 iPhones his investigators can not access data from in criminal investigations.

Apple is also opposing requests to help extract information from 14 Apple devices in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.

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