The FBI said on Monday it has successfully used a mysterious technique without Apple Inc.’s help to hack into the iPhone used by a gunman in a mass shooting in California, effectively ending a pitched court battle between the Obama administration and one of the world’s leading technology companies.
The government 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 court filing in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California provided no details about how the FBI did it or who showed it how. The FBI is reviewing the information on the iPhone, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Apple did not immediately comment on the development.
The case drew international attention and highlighted a growing friction between government authorities and the tech industry. Apple and other tech companies have said they feel increasing need to protect their customers' data from hackers and unfriendly intruders, while police and other government authorities have warned that encryption and other data—protection measures are making it more difficult for investigators to track criminals and dangerous extremists.
The brief court notice left important questions unanswered- Who showed the FBI how to break into iPhones? How did the government bypass the security features that Apple has invested millions of dollars to build into its flagship product? Are newer iPhones vulnerable to the same hacking technique? Will the FBI share its information with scores of state and local police agencies that said they also need to break into the iPhones of criminal suspects? Will the FBI reveal to Apple how it broke its security? Did the FBI find anything useful on the iPhone?
The surprise development also punctured the temporary perception that Apple's security might have been good enough to keep consumers' personal information safe even from the U.S. government with the tremendous resources it can expend when it wants to uncover something.
The FBI used the 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 iPhone, a work phone issued to Farook by his employer, the county health department, was found in a vehicle the day after the shooting; two personal phones were found destroyed so completely that the FBI couldn't recover information from them.
U.S. magistrate Sheri Pym of California last month ordered Apple to provide the FBI with software to help it hack into Farook's work-issued iPhone. The order touched off a debate pitting digital privacy rights against national security concerns.
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 U.S. government last Sunday. Technical experts had said there might be a few ways an outsider could gain access to the phone, but the FBI insisted repeatedly until then that only Apple had the ability to override the iPhone's security. FBI Director James Comey said the bureau even went to the National Security Agency, which did not have the ability to get into the phone.
A law enforcement official said the FBI was successful in unlocking the iPhone over the weekend. The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to publicly comment. The official said federal law enforcement would continue to aid its local and state partners with gaining evidence in cases implying that the method would be shared with them.
First in line is likely, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who told a U.S. House panel earlier this month that he has 205 iPhones his investigators can't 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.
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 and said that Congress should take up the issue.