Commentary

FBI Shelves Showdown With Apple

In a development cheered by digital rights advocates, the FBI has postponed its fight with Apple -- possibly permanently.

The Justice Department late Monday asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in the Central District of California to postpone a showdown with Apple over its encryption technology. The authorities said in court papers that an "outside party" had demonstrated a potential method to unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.

"Testing is required to determine whether it is viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone," the Justice Department wrote in court documents. "If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple."

After receiving the papers, Pym canceled a hearing that had been scheduled for today. She ordered the government to provide a status report by April 5.

For now, the agency's decision to retreat is being hailed as a victory for digital rights. "It’s very clear that public engagement on this issue was key to helping move this from a fight just between Apple and the government to one where all of us know that our security is at stake," Electronic Frontier Foundation director Cindy Cohn wrote.

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Last month, Pym set off a nationwide controversy by ordering Apple to develop software to help the FBI hack into the iPhone used by Farook. The FBI specifically wanted Apple to disable a security feature that prevents hackers from repeatedly testing different passwords on the phone. Apple said that doing so would require it to develop a new operating system.

Apple asked Pym to vacate that order, which was based on her interpretation of the 1789 All Writs Act. That law states that courts "may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."

A broad coalition of other tech companies, security experts and digital rights groups sided with Apple. Among other arguments, they said that the type of software sought by the government could fall into the wrong hands, leaving all iPhone users vulnerable to hackers.

Pym's initial ruling also raised questions about whether the government can order Apple's engineers to develop software they believe harmful. The New York Timesreported last week that some Apple employees may quit their jobs, if told to create software that would undermine security features.

The Justice Department's decision to back away from its demands is notable for several reasons, including that it obviously hoped to set a precedent with the San Bernardino case. The Timesreported last month that the FBI had asked for Apple's assistance unlocking nine other devices, and that Apple was fighting at least seven of those requests. In a local level, that figure is higher: In Manhattan alone, the prosecutor's office has sought to access data on 175 encrypted iPhones.

If the FBI is unable to unlock Farook's phone, the agency could always return to Pym and renew its request for an order against Apple. But the FBI would do so in a weakened position, given its prior argument that Apple's help was absolutely necessary.

“They’ve created ambiguity in a place where they’ve previously said there is none,” Robert Cattanach, a cyber-security expert and former Department of Justice attorney, toldThe New York Post. Cattanach added said the authorities probably wouldn't have acknowledged that they had found a potential avenue for unlocking the phone unless they believed it would work.

1 comment about "FBI Shelves Showdown With Apple".
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  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, March 23, 2016 at 12:01 p.m.

    I'd love to know the rate of personal tax return audit for Apple employees in 2014 vs. 2015.


    For no reason at all, really.

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