FBI Opens San Bernardino Shooter’s iPhone; U.S. Drops Demand on Apple
MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
By DEVLIN BARRETT
Updated March 28, 2016 6:29 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—The Justice Department filed court papers Monday saying it had cracked the iPhone of a San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist, seeking to drop its legal case to force Apple Inc. to help them unlock it.
The move signals a temporary retreat from a high-stakes fight between Washington and Silicon Valley over privacy and security in the digital age.
The filing short-circuits a pending legal showdown over whether the government can force technology companies to write software to aid in criminal investigations, but it is unlikely to avert the long-term conflict between federal agents and technology executives over how secure electronic communications should be, and what firms should have to do to help the government access their customers’ data.
U.S. Says ‘Outside Party’ Could Unlock Terrorist’s iPhone (March 22)
U.S. Prosecutors Again Blast Apple in San Bernardino iPhone Dispute (March 10)
Apple Opposes Judge’s Order to Help Unlock Phone Linked to San Bernardino Attack (Feb. 17)
The iPhone Standoff Debate: Privacy, Security and What’s at Stake (Feb. 17)
The decision by federal officials to drop the case comes a week after prosecutors bowed out of a planned courtroom showdown, telling the magistrate judge in the case that they may have found a new way to access the phone without Apple’s help.
In Monday’s filing, prosecutors revealed the method had in fact worked and Apple’s assistance was no longer necessary.
Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said the FBI “is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.”
She also signaled that while this particular phone is no longer at issue, the broader fight over encryption-protected technology is likely to continue. “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,” she said.
An Apple spokesman didn’t immediately comment.
The dispute between technology companies such as Apple and the federal government has been brewing for more than a year. Firms increasingly have used encryption as a default setting for their products, and they have declined to help law-enforcement agencies open suspect devices in some cases.
That conflict came to a head in December, when investigators recovered the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook after he and his wife opened fire with rifles on a holiday office party in San Bernardino, killing 14 and injuring 22. Investigators couldn’t open the iPhone because of security features that don’t allow more than 10 guesses of an iPhone’s passcode.
The Justice Department eventually got a court order compelling Apple to help them bypass the passcode security features. The company fought the order, setting the stage for a possibly precedent-setting court fight on privacy.
As the two sides geared up for that fight, FBI officials said they had exhausted all possible avenues of getting into the phone before getting the court order against Apple.
In the public and legal debate that followed, the FBI argued the law doesn’t support a company making phones that are “warrant proof”—unable to be opened even with a signed order from a judge. Apple said it was fighting the order because to do what the FBI wanted would create a new security vulnerability for untold millions of iPhone users.
The filing doesn’t indicate what method the FBI used to access the data on the phone, nor does it say what, if any, evidence related to the attacks was found on it.
Officials have been tight-lipped about who offered the FBI a solution to the technical challenge, and how. A person familiar with the case said the method wasn’t developed by a government agency, but by a private entity.
The government is still engaged in a broader fight with Apple over what role, if any, the company should play in helping investigators access data on their customers’ phones.
Previous court filings indicated prosecutors were seeking similar orders against Apple involving at least 15 phones seized as part of unrelated criminal investigations around the country.
State and local prosecutors, most notably Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, have also pressed technology companies to help detectives access data on suspects’ phones.