Apple, backed by a broad coalition of technology giants like Google and Facebook, was fiercely opposed to assisting the US government in unlocking the iPhone on grounds it would have wide-reaching implications on digital security and privacy.
A key court hearing scheduled earlier this month to hear arguments from both sides in the sensitive case was abruptly cancelled after the FBI said it no longer needed Apple’s help because it had found an outside party to unlock the phone.
Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California on December 2 before dying in a firefight with police. Two other phones linked to the pair were found destroyed after the attack.
“Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” US attorney Eileen Decker said in a statement.
In a court filing asking that the case be dismissed, federal prosecutors said the US government had “successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires assistance from Apple Inc.”
It was unclear who helped the FBI access the phone and what was stored on the device. But news reports have said the FBI may have sought assistance from an Israeli forensics company. In a statement late Monday the FBI declined to say who that party was, or what technical steps were taken to unlock the phone.
“The full exploitation of the phone and follow-up investigative steps are continuing. My law enforcement partners and I made a commitment to the victims of the 12/2 attack in San Bernardino and to the American people that no stone would be left unturned in this case,” said Laura Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
The goal of the probe is to determine if the California attackers worked with others, were targeting others and were supported by others, the FBI said.
“While we continue to explore the contents of the iPhone and other evidence, these questions may not be fully resolved, but I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before and that the investigative process is moving forward,” Eimiller said.
Hit a new low
Tech companies, security experts and civil rights advocates had vowed to fight the government, saying it would set a precedent to compel companies to build backdoors into their products.
The government had fired back, insisting that Apple was not above the law and that its request for technical assistance concerned only Farook’s work phone from the San Bernardino health department.
Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, a non-profit that supports Apple, said Monday’s announcement was proof the government had an alternative motive in the case.
“The FBI’s credibility just hit a new low,” he said in a statement. “They repeatedly lied to the court and the public in pursuit of a dangerous precedent that would have made all of us less safe.
“Fortunately, Internet users mobilized quickly and powerfully to educate the public about the dangers of backdoors, and together we forced the government to back down.”
In a recent editorial, The Wall Street Journal also criticized the Justice Department’s legal battle as “reckless” and said the FBI had “fibbed by saying the Apple case is about one phone.”
FBI director James Comey said his agency only decided to back down in the court case after it found a third party that could crack the phone.
“You are simply wrong to assert that the FBI and the Justice Department lied about our ability to access the San Bernardino killer’s phone,” Comey said in an open letter.