In a stark reversal from its earlier position, the Justice Department on Monday backed down from its claim that Apple had the “exclusive technical means” to unlock an iPhone used by San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook, saying it may have another solution.
The two sides were scheduled to meet in court on Tuesday afternoon in Riverside, California.
Attorneys for the Department of Justice told Judge Sheri Pym — who earlier ordered Apple to design a way to weaken the phone’s security at the government’s request — that they might not need Apple’s help anymore.
“An outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone,” wrote the DOJ counsels. “Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone.”
It’s unclear whom the attorneys are referring to, though the DOJ told reporters that the third party doesn’t work for the government. The DOJ asked for two weeks to test the proposed method.
The magistrate judge quickly granted the government’s request, and placed an indefinite stay on the order.
Apple is cautiously optimistic. The company has no idea what solution the FBI has discovered, or if it’s a solution at all, an Apple official told reporters during a press call. The FBI could be right back where it started when the deadline is up.
Whether the FBI’s method works or not, Apple says it won’t back down. “We will not shrink from this responsibility,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at an Apple product release event Monday afternoon.
The government’s sharp pivot, however, is at odds with the numerous times it argued that Apple, and only Apple, could help it access Farook’s phone.
In legal documents, DOJ attorneys and FBI agents investigating the case repeatedly insisted that Apple was the only one who could help.
FBI Director James Comey testified to the same under oath. “We have engaged all parts of the U.S. government to see: Does anybody have a way — short of asking Apple to do it — with a 5c running iOS 9 to do this? And we do not” have a solution, he told Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who grilled him about the case during a House Judiciary hearing.
“Every credible expert knew there were alternative means. That #FBI went so far on so little demonstrated a disregard of facts: bad faith,” tweeted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in response to the latest news.
Technologists following the case hypothesized that the very solution Issa suggested during the hearing — involving “mirroring the flash memory” — might be the one the FBI arrived at. Though forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski says the FBI probably couldn’t come up with that kind of method in two weeks — meaning someone got “dumb lucky” last night, or the bureau’s been working on it for a while, he told The Intercept.
On the one hand, Apple has a temporary reprieve. The company might not have to weaken its own product’s security in order to help the FBI, creating a backdoor that could likely be used on any iPhone, if the code were stolen.
Most security researchers and privacy advocates following the case concluded, however, that the grace period might be short lived. Apple is currently facing multiple other court orders to unlock phones — some of which are running on advanced operating systems comparable to Farook’s phone. The government could easily choose one of these cases to serve as a new model.
“Whatever the outcome here, someone will eventually make a handset that neither vendor nor FBI can crack. FBI then asks congress for a law,” wrote Matt Blaze, associate computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in a tweet. “In other words, this is not the end of Crypto War II. It’s not even really started yet,” he continued.