A showdown between Apple and the FBI over a dead terrorist’s iPhone took a surprise twist this week, when a judge canceled a highly anticipated hearing at the 11th hour.
This came as a victory for Apple (AAPL) but, overall, it is still early innings in what is likely to be a long and bruising battle between the FBI and the tech industry. Here’s a plain English Q&A to get you up to speed on this week’s news, and what will happen next.
Why was the court hearing canceled?
The two sides, you may recall, are in court in the first place because the FBI wants Apple to write new code that would unlock an iPhone belonging to a dead terrorist. Apple is refusing.
Then, all of a sudden, the Justice Department said it heard about a new way to unlock the iPhone and probably doesn’t need Apple’s help after all. A court transcript reveals the government learned this from a “third party” less than 24 hours before the hearing.
So how exactly is the FBI going to unlock the iPhone?
No one is 100% sure but the best explanation is by computer scientist Jonathan Zdziarski. He suspects one of the forensic companies on contract for the U.S. government found a way to replicate a key chip in the iPhone. The ability to replace the chip means the FBI can try many times to guess the phone’s password—and subvert an Apple security feature that erases the contents of an iPhone if someone enters the wrong password 10 times.
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So why was this a victory for Apple?
All along, this case has been less about this specific iPhone (which likely contains nothing important) and more about setting a precedent. That’s why the Justice Department chose this case, involving a high-profile terrorist, to argue Apple should be forced to weaken the iPhone’s encryption in the name of national security.
The FBI’s recent sky-is-falling rhetoric now sounds less credible since the agency doesn’t appear to need Apple after all. This shift also makes the government’s very public legal and PR campaign against the company look more heavy-handed than before.
For Apple, the news ensures it will not have to rewrite its software at the request of the government. The recent events have also bolstered Apple’s role as a privacy champion, and strengthened the case of CEO Tim Cook that consumers should be able to encrypt their devices. (On the other hand, as The Wall Street Journal notes, the recent news is not all good for Apple since it suggests the company’s software has security holes.)
For Tim Cook’s take on Apple vs. FBI, watch:
So what happens with the case now?
While the government is supposed to file a status report with the court on April 5, the case is basically over, according to Nate Cardozo, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Regarding whether this hearing ever takes place, it’s certainly possible but doesn’t seem at all likely. FBI is taking this fight to Congress,” Cardozo said by email.
Cardozo believes the government has been on shaky legal ground all along and that, rather than risk an unfavorable precedent, the FBI will press lawmakers to grant it new powers rather than roll the dice in court.
Is this the end of the debate?
More like the end of the beginning. Apple and other tech companies will respond to this week’s events by making their devices even more secure, and it’s only a matter of time until there is another case where the government demands access to a supposedly unbreakable device.