Apple’s hopes of finding out how the FBI and an unidentified third party accessed data on the San Bernardino attacker’s iPhone are not dashed—yet.
On the other side of the country, Apple (AAPL) is still waging a legal battle in New York over whether it should help the Justice Department obtain data on an iPhone owned by an alleged drug dealer. While Apple had hoped to ditch the case and therefore not be asked by the court to help the Justice Department access the data, which the FBI says could be used to find other participants in a possible drug ring, it now might be one of Apple’s only chances of finding out how the government hacked the iPhone used by San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook.
Within the next two weeks, the Justice Department needs to determine whether or not to keep open its case with Apple. If the government decides to keep the case open, Apple could petition the court to force the Justice Department to reveal how it unlocked the San Bernardino iPhone, Reuters is reporting, citing a source with knowledge of the strategy.
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The technique would be difficult, at best. First, the Justice Department would need to decide to keep its case with Apple open. Second, Apple would need to enter into a lengthy court battle and use discovery—a phase during which both sides can learn more about the case by exchanging information—to compel the Justice Department to reveal how it cracked Farook’s iPhone, the Reuters source says.
The request would be legitimate. After all, if the method worked on Farook’s iPhone 5c, Apple could question why it wouldn’t work on the iPhone in the New York case, which is running iOS 7—an older version of the operating system that didn’t have the same protections as newer iOS versions.
Questions remain over whether Apple will actually get the chance to find out how the Justice Department accessed data on the Farook’s iPhone. The government said in a court filing last week that it wanted to postpone its case with Apple in California after an unidentified third-party had approached the FBI with a technique that could access Farook’s data. Soon after the Justice Department cracked the iPhone, it nixed its case with Apple and has not said how it gained access.
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Apple, meanwhile, has said previously that if the Justice Department accessed the data without its help, it would ask for the method. The tech giant would likely respond by patching the hole. Such a move would undoubtedly anger law enforcement officials, which is potentially why the Justice Department decided against revealing how it cracked the iPhone.
As the days continue on, there are no signs of the FBI revealing to Apple how it cracked the handset. Apple could have no other choice but to hope that the Justice Department still needs its help in the New York drug case and go through the legal paces there.
How quickly things can change.
Just last week, Apple had hoped to get out of the New York case. The Cupertino, Calif.-headquartered company issued a letter to District Court Judge Margo Brodie asking for a delay in the case until the FBI could determine if it could hack Farook’s iPhone 5c. Apple argued in that letter at the time that if the FBI was successful, the New York case would no longer be legitimate because the same method should work with iPhone there.
Apple might have spoken too quickly. Assuming the same method works with other iPhones, the Justice Department will almost undoubtedly give Apple its wish and let it off the hook—just as it did in San Bernardino. And along the way, it’ll keep its secret to itself.
We’ll know for sure what the Justice Department’s next move is in the next couple of weeks. But if the Reuters sources are correct, Apple could be hoping for a protracted court battle in New York so it can finally find out how its iPhone was cracked.
Neither the Justice Department nor Apple immediately responded to a request for comment.