Allen B. West

BREAKING: FBI just made SURPRISE move over San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone…

The Justice Department has just made a surprise announcement ending its fight with Apple over hacking into the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone.

Via Fox News:

The U.S. Justice Department announced Monday it has successfully accessed data stored on the iPhone that belonged to the San Bernardino gunman without Apple’s help, ending the court case against the tech company.

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CNET had previously reported the FBI was enlisting an Irsaeli company in the task — though the FBI didn’t make clear in today’s announcement if indeed that was the case.

The surprise development effectively ends a pitched court battle between Apple and the Obama administration.

The government told a federal court Monday, without any details, that it accessed data on gunman Syed Farook’s iPhone and no longer requires Apple’s assistance.

“As the government noted in its filing today, the FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by this Court Order,” DOJ spokeswoman Melaine Newman said in a statement. “The FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.”

Farook and his wife died in a gun battle with police after killing 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December.

Apple did not immediately comment on the development. 

A U.S. magistrate last month ordered Apple to provide the FBI with software to help it hack into Farook’s work-issued iPhone. The order touched off a debate pitting digital privacy rights against national security concerns.

Many in the Twitterverse are lauding this as a victory for the FBI vs. Apple. And while it’s indeed good news that the FBI has access to important info in the fight against terrorism, painting Apple as the enemy isn’t necessary.

As Frank Luntz points out on Twitter, however, the company had previously suggested it was willing to assist the FBI in identifying options — but that it didn’t want to go down a dangerous route of creating a “back door” for the iPhone that could be used not only for the San Bernarndino killer’s phone, but perhaps many of ours as well.

Frank Lunz

Personally, I (Michelle Jesse) support Apple in its firm stance on this issue. Let the FBI enlist a third party to hack — as it has successfully done here — rather than put the manufacturer of the technology in this position of violating its customers’ trust. (Leave the violation of trust to our government — okay, partially kidding.)

That said, as The New York Times notes, the government’s ability to unlock the phone through alternative means only raises fresh uncertainties, including questions about the security of Apple devices in general.

 The development also creates potential for new conflicts between the government and Apple. Lawyers for Apple have previously said that the company would want to know the method used to crack open the device. The government may make that method classified.

“From a legal standpoint, what happened in the San Bernardino case doesn’t mean the fight is over,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. She noted that the government generally goes through a process whereby it decides whether to disclose information about certain vulnerabilities so that manufacturers can patch them.

“I would hope they would give that information to Apple so that it can patch any weaknesses,” she said, “but if the government classifies the tool, that suggests it may not.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict today’s announcement is unlikely to end either the controversy between the FBI and Apple in particular OR the larger debate about digital privacy rights vs. national security. In fact, it only opens a new chapter…

[Note: This article was written by Michelle Jesse, Associate Editor]

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