The Justice Department has asked to drop the court order that it wanted to use to compel Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino, California, attacker Syed Farook, saying it has gotten data off the device without the company’s help.
“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple,” the government said in a court filing Monday.
The government had been seeking Apple’s assistance in bypassing security features on the phone, on which the contents are encrypted. Lawyers for the Justice Department asked for a delay in a court hearing last week after saying an unnamed third party had come forward with a possible way to crack the phone without Apple’s help.
The third party hasn’t been identified, though who it might be has been a matter of much speculation.
David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, wouldn’t comment on the technical steps taken to get at the phone, but he said Monday night that “highly skilled personnel” had been testing it for almost a week to make sure it wouldn’t be wiped clean.
“The full exploitation of the phone and follow-up investigative steps are continuing,” Bowdich said.
“This case should never have been brought,” Apple said in a statement Monday evening. “Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, a prominent backer of encryption and digital security, said the development doesn’t clear up the constitutional and privacy questions raised by the government’s demand.
“Those worried about our privacy should stay wary,” Issa, former chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a statement Monday night. “Just because the government was able to get into this one phone does not mean that their quest for a secret key into our devices is over.”
The case became a high-profile battle between Apple and the government after the Justice Department asked for an order that would compel the world’s most recognizable tech company to bypass security features on the iPhone so investigators could try repeated passcode entries. The government surprised everyone, Apple included, by asking for a delay last week for a hearing scheduled for March 22.
“Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily,” the government had said in its application for a court order Feb. 16.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook struck back in an open letter published later that day. Attorneys for Apple dubbed the tool the government was asking for “GovtOS” in court filings, and Cook called the method the “software equivalent of cancer.”