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Possibly Fearing A Loss, DoJ Postpones iPhone Unlocking Hearing

The Department of Justice (DoJ) requested that the Court postpone the hearing that was supposed to happen today, possibly to avoid a precedent it wouldn’t have liked in the iPhone unlocking case.

A PR Battle All Along

Even though the FBI and the DoJ have insisted that this case was never about setting a precedent, the reality is they could’ve selected any of the other tens or hundreds of similar cases where they wanted phones to be unlocked. However, they selected the case that involved terrorists and was already highly mediatized in which to fight Apple.

The FBI versus Apple fight is not a new one. It started about a year and a half ago when the FBI’s Director, James Comey, embarked on a media campaign in which he would he would attack Apple for its strong encryption while also demanding backdoors and master keys.

If the FBI would have won this particular fight against Apple, it may have succeeded in getting the public and Congress’ support to compel companies to add backdoors to their encryption or decrypt their communications and devices on demand. That’s why the PR battle has been possibly more important here than in any particular case.

What The DoJ Is Saying

The DoJ said that the last-minute request for a hearing delay is because it may have discovered a new way into the iPhone, and it wouldn’t need Apple’s assistance to do it.

“On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone. If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc. (‘Apple’) set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case,” said the DoJ attorneys in the recent Court filing.“Accordingly, to provide time for testing the method, the government hereby requests that the hearing set for March 22, 2016 be vacated. The government proposes filing a status report with the Court by April 5, 2016,” they added.

Other former intelligence officials and the ACLU have said before that it was quite possible for the FBI to unlock the device itself, either by employing some hardware hacking methods, or by asking the NSA to do it for them. However, the FBI and the DoJ have insisted that it must be Apple itself that unlocks the iPhone.

Hardware hacking is not as easy as simply demanding that Apple unlocks the device, though. It requires special skills and tools, which might not be plentiful at the FBI or at local law enforcement agencies. They would need to also use them in more important cases and not just for any crime. This could be yet another reason why the DoJ would have rather set the precedent to be able to compel companies to unlock devices in any case.

DoJ Lost The PR Battle

With the recent request to delay the hearing, the DoJ is showing that it may have already lost the PR battle. It’s a big win for Apple, which likely means that the DoJ won’t try to use the All Writs Act against Apple anytime soon. Apple should now also be free to implement even stronger security measures for its devices and services, such as the rumored client-side encrypted iCloud storage, and adopting true end-to-end encryption for iMessage that’s more in line with what Signal and Whatsapp use.

However, this is not a complete loss for the DoJ. The Justice Department can continue to try and compel other companies, perhaps smaller ones, that wouldn’t have the courage to take on the government the way Apple did, or those that are friendlier to the U.S. government. It may even manage to gather a few precedents in its favor in several lower Courts. However, those would likely have to be tested against companies such as Apple, which have perhaps better lawyers, in the future.

The new hearing was set for April 5, but it’s now likely that the DoJ may try to drop the case completely in order to avoid a legal precedent that would establish that the government can in no way compel companies to write software for them, add backdoors, or decrypt devices.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. Follow us on FacebookGoogle+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • chicofehr
    Did John McAfee get the contract after all. Joking :p I just want to see him eat his shoe.
  • Caanis Lupus
    The Justice Department can continue to try and compel other companies, perhaps smaller ones, that wouldn’t have the courage to take on the government the way Apple did, or those that are friendlier to the U.S. government.

    Is friendlier really the tone for this? Maybe looking for submissive.

    "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
  • Math Geek
    Now if only the big companies would stand together against such strong arm tactics when they go after smaller more vulnerable companies. we all know it's coming and if apple would stand up for them we would all be in a better place. one united front against the gov's prying wishlist and they'd never get any of it pushed through.
  • hoofhearted
    I wonder if given today's attacks in Brussels, the FBI would have actually stood a chance of winning the case.
  • heliomphalodon
    If I were Tim Cook, I would be more worried about this (supposedly) new hacking technique than I would be about the order to create GovtOS.
    As for this being "a big win for Apple" that's just wishful thinking. The Feds will be back, and next time they'll have an even more emotional test case. How do you think it would go if they were to say next week that Farook had been in contact with the Belgian bombers, and that if Apple had acquiesced (rather than fought back) today's murders in Brussels could have been prevented?
  • hst101rox
    Maybe a company will peel away the silicon layers on that one chip to get the key.
  • dogofwars
    Terrorists work in cells there is no connection with Farook and the other terrorists over in Belgium, they are terrorists and basically believe in the same stupid ideology and basically follow their mantra and that is why they all seem connected.

    The big problem is the news, it's one to send the messages to the intended targets and their own followers. You get one that start and you hear it in the news, you catch the guy(s) and few days later there is another attack, it just daisy chain. The more the media will provide details the worse it will get.

    The terrorist don't use cell phone except at the very last moment when they want to do their attacks they know their cell phones communications are tracked, they use burner that is not even encrypted because in the last minute it's just too late to catch them anyway. Burner cell should be illegal in the first place. Every cell phone should be registered to somebody period, is it doable I don't know.

    This has been proved that after the Snowden incident that they could not catch a lot of peoples with cell phone, they did don't get me wrong but to pinpoint terrorists it's mostly useless for those attacks.

    So this whole thing about giving away our privacy and putting a back door on cell phones does not render security but less.

    As for the access to authorities to have access to cell network well they need to have a way at least to catch the criminals even though for terrorist seem pointless but there is dumb wannabe terrorist so that is at least that.

    All in all no backdoor to the cell phones if they can do it the hard way it's one thing because only some company and authority have the mean to make it happen but a backdoor anybody could have access to any cell phones just a matter of time.
  • mrmez
    Did John McAfee get the contract after all. Joking :p I just want to see him eat his shoe.

    Now that's something we can all agree on.
  • Gurg
    "Israeli firm helping FBI to open encrypted iPhone"
  • Math Geek
    17707078 said:
    "Israeli firm helping FBI to open encrypted iPhone"

    interesting, very interesting