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House Judiciary Hearing with FBI and Apple on Hacking San Bernardino Terrorists Phone
FBI Director James Comey testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Photograph by Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

FBI’s iPhone Unlocking Attempt Could Help Apple Nix NY Case

Mar 25, 2016

While the FBI tries to unlock an iPhone owned by San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook, Apple is trying to get out of a similar case in New York.

Apple issued a letter on Thursday addressed to District Court Judge Margo Brodie asking to delay a case based in New York related to a drug dealer until the FBI can determine if it's capable of unlocking Farook's iPhone 5c, according to Reuters, which obtained a copy of the letter.

While the cases are unrelated, in both disputes, Apple (aapl) is being asked by the U.S. Justice Department to help unlock an iPhone—a request it has continually denied.

The letter is the result of the FBI's revelation on Monday that it had come into contact with a third-party that may have the ability to unlock Farook's iPhone without Apple's help. The Justice Department previously took Apple to court, requesting the company help it unlock the iPhone 5c that Farook had used prior to his San Bernardino attack. The agency hoped it could determine who he may have been communicating with leading up to the attacks.

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Apple has denied the request, arguing that such a request violates its policies and beliefs on user privacy. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he's willing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that encryption on his company's devices remains strong and not forced to unlock any person's device, regardless of the crime.

In New York, the Justice Department is again seeking Apple's help in unlocking an iPhone, albeit for a very different crime and suspect. As with the San Bernardino case, Apple has denied the FBI's request for help. In response, the Justice Department says it simply needs Apple's help so it can find other people that may be involved in a broader drug ring.

The FBI's request to delay the San Bernardino case in order to test its own method gave Apple the opening it needed to potentially put to rest its involvement in the New York case. If the FBI and its third-party collaborator are successful in unlocking Farook's phone, Apple argues, the same technology may be capable of unlocking the iPhone in question in the New York case.

Furthermore, it's possible that the iPhone involved in the New York case could be even easier to unlock because it is running iOS 7, an operating system Apple launched a few years ago that doesn't come with the same level of encryption as later versions.

For Tim Cook's take on Apple vs. FBI, watch:

In Thursday's letter, Apple even had a contingency in place in the event the FBI is unsuccessful in unlocking Farook's iPhone, according to Reuters. The company said that if the Justice Department cannot unlock Farook's device, it wants time to try out the method itself.

"On the other hand, if the DOJ claims that the method will not work on the iPhone here, Apple will seek to test that claim, as well as any claims by the government that other methods cannot be used," Apple explained in the letter, according to Reuters.

Apple has petitioned Judge Brodie to give the iPhone maker at least 10 days after the Justice Department files a status report in the San Bernardino case before the New York case continues on. That status report is expected on April 5. As of this writing, the judge hasn't decided whether to accept Apple's request.

Neither Apple nor the Justice Department responded to a request for comment.

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