FBI may have found way to access gunman's iPhone

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

If method by outside party works, it would render the dispute with Apple moot

RIVERSIDE (California) • The United States Justice Department said it might no longer need Apple's assistance to help open an iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, California, rampage last year, temporarily sidestepping what has become a bitter clash with the world's most valuable company.

In a new court filing, the government said that as of Sunday, an outside party had demonstrated a way for the FBI to possibly unlock the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino attackers.

A hearing in the contentious case - Apple has loudly opposed opening up the iPhone, citing privacy concerns and igniting a heated debate with the government - was originally scheduled for yesterday.

"Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook's iPhone," the Justice Department wrote in the filing.

"If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple."

The Justice Department added that it would file a status report by April 5 on its progress on unlocking the iPhone.

WIDESPREAD IMPACT

This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility. 

APPLE CHIEF TIMOTHY COOK, speaking on the hacking issue at a product launch event on Monday.

Late on Monday, Judge Sheri Pym, the federal magistrate judge in the US District Court for the Central District of California who was set to hold the hearing, agreed to grant the Justice Department's motion to postpone it.

The Justice Department's move is a reprieve in the clash that has erupted between the US government and Apple over how and when the authorities should use the troves of digital data collected and stored by tech companies.

The two sides have traded barbs over the issue for weeks, ever since Apple received a court order last month demanding that the company comply with an order to weaken the security of the iPhone so law enforcement officials could gain access to the data in it.

The case has been viewed as a watershed moment in the debate over privacy and security.

Apple had opposed the court order on the grounds that it would lead to a slippery slope of potentially having to open many iPhones, thus compromising the privacy of its many consumers.

"This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility," Apple chief executive Timothy Cook said at a product event on Monday at Apple's Cupertino, California, headquarters.

US President Barack Obama said this month that law enforcement authorities must be able to legally collect information from smartphones and other electronic devices.

The case also spotlighted the All Writs Act, a legal statute that dates to 1789 and which the government was using as a key underpinning of its case.

"This could render the whole dispute moot," Mr Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor who filed a brief on behalf of law enforcement groups that supported the Justice Department in this case, said of the new filing.

"The issue at hand is whether the government can use the All Writs Act to force an unwilling third party, Apple, to create a back door.

"But if it can find a willing third party to break into the phone, then the All Writs Act argument is moot."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'FBI may have found way to access gunman's iPhone'. Print Edition | Subscribe