Department of Justice drops suit against Apple


Apple logoThe ongoing legal struggle between Apple and the Department of Justice shifted dramatically as federal officials dropped their effort to force the Cupertino tech giant to grant access to the iPhone used by Syed Farook, the terrorist who perpetrated the San Bernardino attacks.

Through means which have yet to be disclosed, DOJ gained access to the phone’s contents on its own, raising questions about its methods which may be revealed to Apple as the focus of litigation shifts away from Riverside, California, to New York.

Cracking the code

“F.B.I. investigators have begun examining the contents of the phone but would not say what, if anything, they have identified so far,” the New York Times reported. “The Justice Department also remained tight-lipped about how it was able to finally get into the smartphone after weeks of furious public debate.

“A second law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reporters in a conference call said that a company outside the government provided the F.B.I. with the means to get into the phone used by Mr. Farook, which is an iPhone 5C running Apple’s iOS 9 mobile operating system. The official would not name the company or discuss how it was accomplished, nor would officials say whether the process would ultimately be shared with Apple.”

But according to industry sources cited by NBC News, the Israeli firm Cellebrite was contracted to do the job. “The firm has been rumored to be behind the FBI’s newfound ability to access the device, thanks to a previous and unconfirmed report from an Israeli newspaper,” The Hill noted. Though Cellebrite and the Department of Justice have not confirmed the rumors or the reports linking the two, Bureau officials have “routinely contracted Cellebrite over the last five years,” The Hill added. “The company, which publicly boasts of its ability to hack into Apple devices, has received over $2 million in purchase orders from the agency since 2012.”

Another shoe to drop

Nevertheless, the details of the government’s behind-the-scenes efforts could soon come to light. “Apple is in the middle of a separate case in Brooklyn, New York, in which the Justice Department wants the company to unlock an iPhone used by an alleged drug dealer. So far, Apple has resisted,” as CNET observed. But if federal officials press forward with litigation, “both sides would have to exchange information and evidence. That’s when Apple could demand that the DOJ explain how it hacked Farook’s iPhone[.]”

According to Reuters, a federal magistrate ruled last month in the Brooklyn case “that he did not have authority to order Apple to disable the security of an iPhone seized during a drug investigation. The Justice Department then appealed to a district court judge.”

“After filing that appeal, U.S. prosecutors notified the magistrate in the San Bernardino case that a third party had demonstrated a new technique which could access the iPhone in question. The Justice Department disclosed the new technique to the judge one day after the demonstration, and then confirmed its success on Monday, according to court filings, though it did not reveal how its solution works.”

Notably, the means whereby the Department of Justice might access the contents of the alleged drug dealer’s cellphone could well differ from those used on Farook’s phone. That’s because “the Brooklyn phone runs an older version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7, than the phone in San Bernardino, which ran iOS 9,” as Quartz pointed out. “As such, it’s likely that the Brooklyn phone is easier to access. For example, hacking tools can be bought on eBay to unlock some phones running iOS 8 or earlier.”

Edward Snowden recently made headlines by claiming that the FBI lied about needing Apple’s help at the beginning of the controversy because of a relatively easy-to-implement passcode workaround.

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