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FBI's Claim It Can Access iPhone Without Apple’s Help Prompts Questions

In a surprise development, feds say they may have found another way to access the iPhone recovered from a San Bernardino terror suspect.

The FBI’s claim late Monday that it may not need Apple’s help after all to break into a locked iPhone recovered from one of the terror suspects in last November’s San Bernardino shootings has evoked mixed reactions.

Many see it as a welcome sign that the government is backing down—at least temporarily—from its controversial position that Apple be required to write software for overriding password protections on the recovered phone. But the relief is tempered with questions, and even concerns about the access method that the FBI says it may have found -- and whether that would represent a vulnerability to other iPhones as well.

The FBI has for the past several weeks been seeking Apple’s help in unlocking an iPhone 5C used by San Bernardino terror suspect Syed Farook. The phone can be set to automatically delete any data on it after 10 failed password attempts and also to impose a delay between password-retry attempts.

Until Monday, the FBI had wanted Apple to write software for bypassing these protections. In February, the agency obtained an order from the US District Court for the Central District of California that compelled Apple to write the code.

Apple resisted the order claiming that what the FBI was asking it to do was to create a backdoor that would give the agency access to other iPhones. Though the FBI insisted that it was only asking for help accessing the specific iPhone recovered from Farook, Apple maintained that the software the court wanted it to write would give the agency a masterkey to all iPhones. The company also argued that if it acceded to the demand, there would be no stopping the government and state authorities from making similar demands in future.

On Monday, the FBI abruptly filed a motion with the court seeking postponement of a hearing scheduled for today on the dispute. In its brief, the Justice Department said that on Sunday, March 20, an “outside party” had demonstrated a potential method for unlocking the iPhone without Apple’s help.

“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone,” the motion noted. “If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc.”

Magistrate judge Sheryl Pym Monday granted the motion to postpone and the government’s request that it be allowed to present a status report on April 5.

If the access method proposed by the outside party does not work, it is quite likely that the FBI will resume its efforts to get Apple to write software to help it break into Farook’s phone.

“This is an extremely interesting plot twist,” said Jay Kaplan, CEO of security vendor Synack, in a statement. “If the government has found an outside agency to assist with unlocking the iPhone in question without Apple's involvement, there is a strong likelihood that a zero-day exploit exists enabling access to the phone without a software overwrite,” he said.

If such a flaw exists in the iPhone, the question then is whether the government will keep the flaw to itself for use in future, he said.

It would not be a surprise if the FBI indeed has found a way to unlock Farook’s iPhone without Apple’s help, added Ben Johnson, co-founder and chief security strategist at Carbon Black. But that would leave a bigger question unanswered.

“It seems a shame to not get some clarity in the courts over what the government can and can't request when it comes to privacy and security,” he said. “If this case does not reach a conclusion you can bet we'll be back in this same spot soon."

It’s a position that others like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) share as well. The fact that the FBI has sought a postponement in this case does not mean that it will stop trying to weaken encryption standards and require industry to build backdoors in technology products, the EFF said. It’s only a matter of time, before it comes back with another test case to set a legal precedent in the matter, the rights advocacy group warned.

Importantly, a successful FBI hack of the recovered iPhone would leave Apple in a rather uncomfortable position as well, Orin Kerr, research professor at the George Washington University law School wrote in a Washington Post blog. “Apple claimed that the sky would fall if it had to create the code in light of the risk outsiders might steal it and threaten the privacy of everyone,” he said.  “If outsiders already have a way in without Apple’s help, then the sky has already fallen. Apple just didn’t know it."

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