Federal officials on Monday dropped their legal fight against Apple after unlocking the iPhone used by an assailant in last year’s San Bernardino terror attack, leaving unsettled a vexing debate over privacy and security amid rapid advances in technology.
The move comes a week after Justice Department officials put a sudden hold on their demands that Apple assist the FBI with an announcement that an outside group had offered a way to hack into the iPhone.
Aided by the unnamed group, FBI technology experts had been at work since, testing the technique to confirm it could open the iPhone without jeopardizing its contents.
The breakthrough came over the weekend, when the information stored on the phone was extracted, said a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He declined to say anything about the contents of the phone, other than that FBI agents were reviewing the material.
The official also remained tight-lipped about the method that was used to beat the iPhone’s security barriers, as well as the identity of the group that delivered it to FBI agents. Any speculation about the effect of the breakthrough on other cases involving locked phones would be premature, he said.
The move appeared to end a historic legal showdown that pitted the demands of law enforcement investigating crimes against the rights of companies to protect their customers’ privacy.
But it also raises new questions for both sides as well as the tech industry as a whole given that the government was able to get past Apple’s daunting encryption through some type of hack.
“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,” U.S. Atty. Eileen Decker said in a statement after prosecutors asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to vacate an order compelling Apple’s cooperation.
Apple struck a defiant tone Monday evening, saying in a statement that the “backdoor” into its phones sought by prosecutors “would set a dangerous precedent.... This case should never have been brought.”
The company also underscored the crucial questions at the heart of the case, urging “a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy.”
In legal briefs and public statements aimed at winning both in court and opinion polls, Apple executives and their attorneys forcefully opposed Pym’s order, which would have compelled the technology giant to engineer a way around security measures it had built into the iPhone.
Doing so, they said, would amount to creating a master key for accessing all iPhones, which would quickly become a holy grail for hackers.
Prosecutors rebuffed Apple’s doomsday scenario, insisting the case dealt only with cracking into the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife carried out the Dec. 2 attack that left 14 dead and many others wounded. Justice officials say the assault was an act of terrorism.
Despite the government’s claims, the fight over Farook’s iPhone was seen as a test case over whether technology companies could be forced to develop computer code to assist a criminal investigation. It took on broader implications as well about how far the government could go in forcing companies or individuals into its service.
The case revolved around the iPhone 5C issued to Farook for his job as a San Bernardino County health inspector that was found in his car after a shootout with police that left him and his wife dead.
Although FBI agents managed to piece together much about the couple, they wanted to review the contacts, messages and other information on the phone in hopes it would help answer whether the killers had accomplices, among other questions.
Worried that Farook had activated a security feature making an iPhone inoperable after 10 failed attempts to enter a four-digit security code, agents approached Apple for assistance in getting into the device.
Until the correct security code is entered, Apple’s encryption software keeps the contents of the phone scrambled.
Agents wanted Apple to write a new operating system that would bypass the 10-attempt limit on the security code and other security measures.
With this done, agents then planned to use a computer program to churn through the 10,000 possible passcodes until they hit upon the right one.
When the world’s most valuable company refused, Decker looked to Pym. The judge granted prosecutors’ request for an order forcing Apple to help but delayed making a final decision until after the two sides had a chance to make their case. The evening before a court hearing to decide the matter, Decker’s team sprung the announcement about getting help from the outside group.
On Monday, David Bowdich, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles office, issued a statement about the analysis of the phone’s content.
“We promised to explore every investigative avenue in order to learn whether the San Bernardino suspects were working with others, were targeting others, or whether or not they were supported by others,” he said. “These questions may not be fully resolved, but I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before.”
Apple attorneys said last week they will explore legal options to force the FBI to turn over details of the hacking method. They declined to elaborate Monday.
The fact that a way into Farook’s iPhone had been discovered, the attorneys said, underscored the fears the tech giant has repeatedly expressed during its legal fight with the government: that the company must contend with constant attempts by outside parties to worm past Apple’s security measures.
Technology executives and privacy advocates viewed the government’s decision to end the case as a fleeting victory.
As companies make it increasingly difficult for investigators to access information on smartphones and other devices with heightened encryption and security, they expressed concern that the larger debate over balancing the needs of government and private industry remained unresolved.
“This case was never about just one phone. It was about an unprecedented power grab by the government that was a threat to everyone’s security and privacy,” said Alex Abdo, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Unfortunately, today’s news appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight over whether the FBI can force Apple to undermine the security of its own products.”
Aaron Levie, chief executive of online storage
provider Box Inc., said other legal skirmishes on the
same issues will occur until there is “a broader conversation around the policy,
regulation and laws in a digital world and what does it mean to have secure technology.”
Apple itself highlighted the difficulty in resolving these tensions, saying in its statement Monday that it planned to “continue to
help law enforcement with their investigations … and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.”
Stephen Larson, an attorney representing the families of several people killed in the attack, said the focus should remain on the victims.
“Our concern from Day One has been obtaining information of potentially great importance to both law enforcement and the victims of terrorism,” Larson wrote in an email to The Times. “For this to have dragged out in court battles would not have served the interests of either.”
Times staff writer Del Wilber contributed to this report.