tim cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook. AP


The US Justice Department said on Monday that it had managed to access encrypted information stored on the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, ending a contentious standoff between the government and Apple.

The Justice Department told a federal court on Monday that it no longer needed Apple’s help bypassing the iPhone’s security measures, and it requested that its original order for Apple’s technical assistance be withdrawn.

According to the DOJ, the reason it withdrew is because it was successfully able to access the data on the iPhone without Apple’s help.

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym vacated the original order.

Apple had vigorously fought the government’s order to help it access the data by developing special software, arguing that it would effectively create a “backdoor” that compromised the security of its products. But the fact that the FBI was apparently able to get the encrypted data without Apple’s help raised new questions about the strength of the security of Apple’s devices.

Last week, the DOJ asked to delay a hearing over the issue because the FBI said it had found a “third-party” that may have been able to get into shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone, meaning that Apple’s help would not be needed. Monday’s developments indicate that the FBI was successful.

The DOJ said in a statement:

The FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by the Court Order. The FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.

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.

The battle between the FBI and Apple surrounds Syed Farook’s work-issued iPhone. After he and his wife killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December, investigators found his work phone, but were not able to access the data on it because it is encrypted.

Third-party workaround?

It is still unclear what the government did to access the data on Farook’s phone. Speculation about the third party has centered on an experimental technique called NAND flash mirroring and an Israeli company,Cellebrite, that specializes in digital-forensic tools.

Apple lawyers said last week that they did not know the technique the FBI was using and said that they would seek to force the FBI to reveal it.

An FBI spokesman declined to reveal what data was found on Farook’s iPhone or how law enforcement gained access in a phone call with reporters.

Monday’s developments mark the end to a saga that began when a court order directing Apple to help the FBI bypass a lock-screen security measure on Farook’s iPhone was unsealed. Apple appealed not only in court documents, but in an open letter from CEO Tim Cook posted on Apple’s site, turning the legal battle into a public dispute.

Since then, the two sides have exchanged a volley of barbed legal filings, often loaded with hyperbolic language. The DOJ called Apple’s stance “corrosive.” Cook said the FBI wanted Apple to create “the software equivalent of cancer” during a TV interview.

The FBI was seeking to force Apple to write software that would allow investigators to try as many passcodes needed to unlock the device without tripping a security measure on the phone that would automatically erase any information on the device.

Here’s the status report the FBI filed that says that it had successfully accessed the data on Farook’s iPhone and requesting that the original court order be vacated:

FBI Apple CDCal Govts Status Report

Here’s the order from Pym vacating the original court order:

Vacate Apple-FBI

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As reported by Business Insider