Mar 29 2016

DOJ Says It Cracked iPhone Without Apple's Help

The Justice Department's stance still leaves questions about privacy and legal precedents unresolved.

The Justice Department said on Monday that it had cracked the iPhone 5c of one of the gunmen in the December terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., without Apple’s help. The DOJ received aid from an unnamed third party.

Apple had been fighting a court order compelling it to help the FBI break into an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, which set off a roiling debate about security and privacy within the government and the wider world. While the announcement ends the federal government’s immediate battle with Apple, there are still many unresolved questions, as The New York Times notes.

One of them is what will happen in a future case when the government asks Apple to hack into its own phones. Another is the method by which the DOJ opened the phone and what that says about Apple’s security of its devices.

In a short court filing Monday, the Justice Department said it had “now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple.” The filing came a week after the DOJ had said that “an outside party had demonstrated a way for the FBI to possibly unlock the phone” in the case.

“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,” DOJ spokeswoman Melanie Newman said in a statement, according to BuzzFeed. “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.”

Apple said in a statement that the “case should never have been brought” and that while it will continue to aid law enforcement in investigations it will also ratchet up the security of its products as attacks become more frequent and sophisticated. “Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy,” the company said. “Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.

According to Re/code, “a law enforcement official in a background briefing with reporters declined to elaborate on the identity of the third party, beyond saying that the party is not another U.S. government agency.” As CNET notes, some reports have named a privately held Israeli firm, Cellebrite, as the firm that helped the FBI, but neither the government Cellebrite have confirmed the reports. Re/code states: “The official declined to discuss speculate whether the method will be used on other phones in other investigations, or if the method will be shared with law enforcement agencies at the state and local level, or if information about it will be shared with Apple.”