March 23, 2016

The FBI Might Not Need Apple's Decryption Help

Andrea O'Sullivan

Feature Writer
Summary

The FBI says a mysterious "outside party" has found a way to unlock San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook’s iPhone without assistance from Apple.

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Well, that was odd. On Monday, the U.S. government suddenly pressed pause in its encryption battle with Apple—a case that stands to make or break a precedent for building a government "back door" into secure technologies. FBI lawyers requested that a court hearing originally scheduled for today be postponed until after April 5. The reason? An unknown "outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking [San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan] Farook’s iPhone" that would "eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple."

On Wednesday, it was revealed that Israeli mobile forensic software provider Cellebrite was likely the firm enlisted to help the FBI unlock Farook’s iPhone. According to Reuters, the firm is split into two companies: one that provides forensic systems to law enforcement and intelligence agencies like the FBI and another that provides technology for mobile retailers. If the FBI’s version of events is correct, Cellebrite contacted the FBI "out of the blue" just before the agency was heading into a difficult court case. Talk about good luck.

Until now, the FBI has been pushing for Apple engineers to purposefully break certain iPhone security features so federal agents can access data on Farook's phone. Virtually all of Silicon Valley stands with Apple, viewing the order to build a "back door" for government access as a major threat to strong cybersecurity and a worrying overreach of state power. But the FBI has argued that all this clucking about "network security, encryption, back doors, and privacy" is a mere "diversion" from the just cause of prosecuting terrorists. 

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