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Activists gather in front of Apple stores to express support for the tech company in its fight against the FBI. (Photo: Los Angeles News Group)

FBI Unexpectedly Says It May Not Need Apple's Help to Unlock iPhone

Government backs off from privacy fight, temporarily, as it asks court for time to test alternate method

Nadia Prupis

The FBI has unexpectedly backed off its privacy battle with Apple, as the agency cancelled a hearing set for Tuesday in its ongoing effort to force the tech company to break into one of the suspected San Bernardino shooter's iPhones, telling the court it had found a potential new way to access the data.

Until Monday, the government had insisted—under oath—that it needed Apple's help in unlocking Syed Farook's phone, a claim which Apple has denied. The FBI told the court late Monday that a "third party" had demonstrated an alternate method of unlocking the device and asked for time to test it. The government has until April 5 to determine if it wants to pursue the case.

Just ahead of Tuesday's hearing, magistrate judge Sheri Pym stayed her previous order that Apple help the FBI crack the passcode on Farook's phone.

The development was unexpected even by Apple, which has been resisting the FBI's effort to break into Farook's phone on the grounds that setting such a precedent would threaten user privacy and enable a dangerous expansion of government power. In a press call with reporters, Apple's attorneys said they were not even aware that the FBI had been continuing to search for other solutions.

Alex Abdo, an attorney at the ACLU, which filed a brief in support of Apple, told the Guardian that the reversal "suggests that the FBI either doesn't understand the technology well enough or wasn't telling us the full truth earlier when it said that only Apple could break into the phone. Either possibility is disconcerting."

Evan Greer, campaign director with the digital rights group Fight for the Future, said Tuesday, "This case was never about a phone. It was a grab for power. The FBI already had the capability to hack this phone using forensic tools, but they thought this case would be a slam dunk—a way for them to set a dangerous precedent that they’ve wanted for years."

"Instead, it appears they’re running away with their tail between their legs, trying to save face while they go," Greer said. "They knew they were going to lose, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion."

In a conference call with reporters, Apple's attorneys cautioned against seeing the development as a legal victory, stating that they could be back where they were in two weeks' time.

They also said they would demand the government share the method if it successfully gets into the phone.

Still, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted that it was "good news for now."

EFF executive director Cindy Cohn wrote in a blog post on Monday:

This may be more than just a routine extension of time. The FBI’s motion acknowledges that it may have other avenues to pursue in accessing the data on the phone, something that it must do under the law. It could also provide a way for the FBI to get out of a very public battle it provoked over an extremely contentious issue: how and when tech companies can be forced to rewrite their software to facilitate surveillance.

Cohn credited "public engagement" for helping bring the case into the international spotlight.

"The world is watching," she wrote.

Matt Blaze, a professor and computer security expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told Reuters, "From a purely technical perspective, one of the most fragile parts of the government's case is the claim that Apple's help is required to unlock the phone. Many in the technical community have been skeptical that this is true, especially given the government's considerable resources."

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