In a surprising turn of events, the Department of Justice on Monday night asked the court to vacate Tuesday’s hearing. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym granted the request, and today’s big court battle between Apple and the FBI has been canceled for the time being.
What happened? Did the Bureau have a change of heart and decide that breaking into San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone was a bad idea? Not even close. Instead, the FBI says it may have a way to break into the iPhone in question without needing Apple’s help.
The idea that agencies like the NSA have ways to hack their way past some iPhone security isn’t anything new, and it was believed that other agencies and even non-government third parties might have the capability as well. The FBI knows this, but the Bureau seemingly sought to set a precedent so that it could rely on Apple’s reluctant help in similar cases in the future.
That plan backfired epically when Apple decided to involve the general public in its fight.
It appeared as though the FBI had no plans to back down, but on the eve of day one of its big court fight against Apple, the Bureau temporarily bowed out. The DOJ’s statement read in part, “On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone. If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc. (“Apple”) set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case.”
It’s not clear who this mysterious “outside party” is for the time being, but the FBI has until April 5th to try this new method to break into the iPhone, at which time it will have to report back to the court. And if the agency hopes to used any of the data recovered from the shooter’s iPhone, it will have to go on record by then as well.
For the time being though, the potential vulnerability is a mystery. For that reason, among others, Apple told reporters on Monday night that these new developments hardly represent a victory. The Associated Press was also told by Apple’s attorneys that “Apple has no idea what method the FBI is now exploring to try unlocking the encrypted iPhone,” and that the FBI may never have to share its methods.
This story is indeed far from over.