FBI: Actually Maybe We Don’t Need Apple To Unlock Their Phone After All

Image courtesy of Adam Fagen

Apple and the FBI have been fighting very publicly for the last month about national security, iPhones, and the intersection of privacy and encryption with those things. Their legal battle was supposed to be heard in court in California this afternoon — except the FBI has asked for a delay, saying that actually, maybe they don’t need Apple to create a backdoor to get what they want after all.

A brief overview of the story so far: the FBI has in their possession an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, one of the now-deceased shooters from the attack in San Bernardino last December. They want to search the contents of that iPhone as part of their continuing investigation. But they have a problem: the security feature that wipes the phone if the wrong PIN is entered too many times. They can’t ask what the PIN is or compel it, because the phone’s owner is dead. They can’t just brute-force it (going through every one of the 10,000 possible combinations in order) because if they put in too many incorrect entries they’ll lose the data they were hacking the phone to get at in the first place.

The result was the FBI asking Apple to create a work-around version of iOS that would disable the security feature and let them hack the phone. In February, Apple publicly and in no uncertain terms refused to do so ever, and the PR battle has raged back and forth from there.

But then, at the last minute, a sudden pause appeared when, on Monday, the FBI asked the court to skip today’s hearing after all — because it turns out, maybe they don’t need it.

In the filing (PDF), the Feds say that “as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention on this case,” various third parties “outside the U.S. government” have reached out to contact them about possible ways they can successfully hack the phone without Apple’s help.

One such unnamed party demonstrated a possible technique to the FBI on Sunday, and so the feds are requesting that today’s hearing be vacated (cancelled), and instead they will file a status report in two weeks saying whether they need to compel Apple to do anything or not after all.

As Ars Technica points out, this might be a short-term win for Apple — certainly, they’ve put encryption into the mainstream conversation, and taken a strong stand — but in the long run it might be no better for any of us than if Apple and the FBI had gone to court today after all. That would have been a public hearing, on the record, with some of the country’s top legal talent arguing it out as a test case to form precedent. Instead, the FBI is now effectively saying, “ah, nevermind, we don’t actually need help to hack secure phones,” which is… not exactly a comforting thought to privacy and anti-surveillance advocates.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of today’s hearing is unlikely to be the end of the issue. Smartphones and other encrypted, protected personal devices are where we keep our lives, and law enforcement is going to keep wanting access as needed. This phone and this case might go quiet, but another will pop up in the future.

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