After Unlocking iPhone On Its Own, Government Drops Effort To Compel Apple’s Help

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Last week, it was reported that the FBI had figured out how to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA, on Dec. 2, 2015. Now, it’s official, as the government has dropped its attempt to compel Apple to aid the FBI in bypassing the device’s security — but this is just the first of likely many fights over this issue.

This morning, the Department of Justice filed a status report [PDF] with the U.S. District Court that had first ordered Apple to assist the FBI, disclosing that the agency’s efforts to unlock the iPhone belonging to Syed Farook had been fruitful.

“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc.,” reads the report.

And so, with no need for Apple to pitch in, the court granted the DOJ’s request to vacate the order.

While this particular instance may be concluded, the larger issue of the balance between consumer privacy and law enforcement is far from resolved.

In its various public statements and court filings, Apple had noted that the San Bernardino request for assistance was just one of several recently made by law enforcement, all seeking to have the company circumvent the very privacy measure it had worked to put in place — and marketed to consumers.

In fact, in the middle of the courtroom battle over the Farook iPhone, a District Court in New York shot down a similar request from law enforcement. In both the California and New York case, the government had sought to compel Apple’s assistance under the All Writs Act, which allows a judge to compel a person or group to assist enforcing a court order — but only if that assistance is both necessary and “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”

While the California judge never got the opportunity to rule on Apple’s arguments against being forced to weaken its own encryption, the New York court ruled that the All Writs Act did not give the government the authority to force Apple to assist the FBI. The judge in that case determined that, even if the the law did grant him the authority to compel Apple to assist the FBI, the company was too far removed from the criminal conduct involved, and Apple would be unduly burdened by the requirements of such an order.

But with the FBI having figured out a way to circumvent the Apple encryption, a slew of new questions are raised.

Will other law enforcement agencies be given access to the same method for unlocking devices in similar cases? If so, will that work-around be protected so that it doesn’t leak out to hackers who could use it to compromise millions of iPhones?

That possibility of a backdoor being made public was one of the many concerns Apple raised in its objections to the court order, pointing out that some previous efforts to build backdoors into computer technology had only resulted in leaving the door open for criminals.

And now that Apple customers know that their iPhones are not as secure as believed, will they continue to trust Apple products — or will Apple have to make iPhones that are even more locked-down to appeal to security-conscious consumers?

In fact, Apple is already reportedly at work on an iPhone upgrade that will make it impossible to upgrade the software without the passcode, which only the owner knows.

Apple is not the only major tech company that is making things better for privacy-minded users, but more complicated for law enforcement. Federal prosecutors have reportedly been looking at the possibility of going after the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service, which recently added end-to-end encryption, meaning that the company can not monitor any of the content of WhatsApp messages as they travel between users.

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