No one expected the San Bernardino terrorist attack to result in a court battle between the U.S. Justice Department and Apple, but that’s what happened. Apple initially refused to compromise its iPhone security in February when it went against a federal court order to introduce a backdoor into the encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, an attacker in the December San Bernardino mass shooting. As of Monday, it seems the situation has come to a resolution—at least for now.
According to a court filing from Monday, the Justice Department is now abandoning its bid to force Apple to unlock the iPhone in question, but only because investigators found a way to do so without the company’s assistance. In the three-sentence filing, prosecutors wrote simply that they have “successfully accessed the data” stored on the phone and therefore no longer needed Apple’s court-ordered help to do so.
While this move averts a courtroom showdown between one of the country’s biggest tech giants against the government, while avoiding setting what privacy advocates consider a dangerous precedent, there’s still some mystery as to how exactly investigators got into the phone. The FBI indicated last week that it might have found a way into Farook’s device, going so far as to mention in a court filing that “an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method.” Other than that, government officials have not offered details about who proposed this method or how it would work.
Apple, meanwhile, considers this outcome a success, stating: “From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.”
According to a little-known process, the government must disclose the method it used to gain access to Farook’s iPhone to Apple, but it doesn’t seem likely this will occur without a fight. In fact, Mark Bartholomew, a professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School who specializes in intellectual property and technology law, told The Washington Post that he expects Apple will have to fight to learn about the methodology used to access the iPhone so the company can fix the security hole.