S government applies to drop court case that pitted tech giants against law enforcement agents in a battle over the limits of encryption and privacy.
The American government is abandoning its legal action against Apple after FBI investigators found a way to unlock an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino gunmen, according to court papers filed on Monday.
The tech giant had been fighting a court order that required it to develop software that would unlock the phone, fearing it would make its encryption software redundant.
In response, the FBI said it was the only way to access data on Syed Rizwan Farook’s handset and find out whether he had been in touch with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or other terrorists before he and his wife shot dead 14 people in California last year. The couple died in a shootout with police.
In its original filing, the US Attorney’s Office argued: “Apple has the exclusive technical means which would assist the government in completing its search, but has declined to provide that assistance voluntarily.”
Last month, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to comply with the request prompting a very public debate about the limits of privacy.
Apple won the backing of a string of major Silicon Valley tech companies, who warned that any software workaround would soon spread to unscrupulous users, weakening protection for all consumers.
They also feared the US government had picked the strongest case it could find – with 14 murders and the spectre of Islamic terrorism – to push for a measure it knew would undermine encryption.
Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, said the action would put civil liberties on a “slippery slope”.
“No one should have a key that turns a billion locks,” he said.
However, last week, investigators said they had been contacted by a third party who claimed to have a method to unlock the phone.
“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise date on Farook’s iPhone,” it said at the time.
“If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case.”
That has now happened, according to Eileen Decker, the most senior federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
“Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack,” she added.
What does the FBI want?
The FBI is trying to get access to San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook’s iPhone 5C to help with its investigation into the shooting that left 14 people in California dead. While it has the handset, the FBI can’t unlock the phone’s passcode, nor can it read any of the communications data stored on the phone because of Apple’s end-to-end encryption. It took Apple to court to ask for help.
What did the court say?
The US district court ruled that Apple must help the FBI in its investigation by creating special software for this one iPhone 5C and by cracking its passcode. Apple can dispute the order on the grounds that it is “burdensome” or that it will “cause irreparable harm” to the company. After that, it must appeal to a higher court.
Why is Apple is refusing to help the FBI?
Apple doesn’t currently have a key that will unlock the phone and has refused to create one for fear that it could be exploited by criminals and governments alike to access personal information stored on the secure devices. Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, said that creating a master key would set a “dangerous precedent”. If the court dictates that Apple must comply with the FBI’s request it could face daily fines or, in theory, send an Apple executive to prison.
Why is it so important?
The case has riled Silicon Valley. Facebook, WhatsApp and Google have all come out in support of Apple, while Bill Gates has sided with the FBI. What happens next could give law enforcement in both the US and around the world new powers to monitor communications and access private data. It comes as a separate debate over backdoors for end-to-end encryption is going on the UK with Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill. Apple has called for the formation of a US Government committee that will look at the ramifications of the case in terms of law enforcement, national security, privacy and personal freedoms.
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