US drops Apple case after FBI accesses iPhone without firm’s help

Decision averts legal ruling that would have shaped digital privacy for years

Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook: the pair killed 14 people and injured 22 in San Bernardino, California last December. The FBI says it has accessed Farook’s phone with the help of a third party.

Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook: the pair killed 14 people and injured 22 in San Bernardino, California last December. The FBI says it has accessed Farook’s phone with the help of a third party.

 

The US government’s decision to drop its court fight against Apple over access to the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook has ended a six-week legal battle that had been poised to shape digital privacy for years to come.

Instead, Silicon Valley and Washington are poised to return to a simmering cold war over the balance between privacy and law enforcement in the age of apps.

Apple had been resisting a court order issued last month requiring the firm to write new software to allow officials to access Farook’s phone.

Justice Department lawyers wrote in a court filing Monday evening, however, that they no longer needed Apple’s help.

“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc,” the government said. It then asked the court to vacate a February 16th court order demanding Apple create software that weakened iPhone security settings to aid government investigators.

Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, on December 2nd last, killing 14 people and injuring 22. The couple died in a shoot-out with police after the attack. Officials said Malik had pledged allegiance to Islamic State on social media on the day of the shooting.

Secret technique

The official also declined to say whether the government would share the technique – which probably exploits a security glitch in the phone – with Apple. Doing so would presumably cause the company to patch the security flaw. This leaves the justice department with a difficult choice: make all iPhones more secure from other hackers and governments, or preserve an investigative technique.

The government on Monday would only confirm the technique works on the iPhone model Farook used – the iPhone 5c – but it is possible it could work on other models that run the same software.

Apple fought the February court order with a massive public relations and legal campaign, arguing that creating such software would force the company to betray its values along with the security and privacy of all of its customers.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook argued that if Apple were forced to re-engineer its products, it would open a Pandora’s box that could give the government outsized control over how Silicon Valley makes its products.

The case forced public leaders from Barack Obama to Bill Gates to declare where they stood on the balance between privacy and national security.

Encryption

Public opinion polls showed the public narrowly sided with the US government.

It is unclear what the next step will be for each side.

Government lawyers already have earmarked criminal investigations that require getting around encryption or other privacy features of various messaging services, such as Facebook’s Whatsapp, but are yet to take those companies to court.

Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the outcome, “appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight”. –(Guardian service)