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FBI-Apple Case Ends With FBI Unlocking The Shooter's iPhone

The San Bernardino-Apple case, in which the FBI demanded Apple's assistance in unlocking the gunman's iPhone 5c, ended with FBI investigators saying that they were able to unlock the device without Apple's help.

The FBI found another way to unlock the device after several months during which the agency kept saying that the phone could only be unlocked with Apple's help. This was despite multiple experts and representatives urging the FBI to look for another way, as it is required by the All Writs Act.

Just one day before the courtroom hearing, which was supposed to be held on March 22, the FBI requested that the hearing be postponed until April 5, as the agency was evaluating another method of unlocking the iPhone with the help of a third-party. The FBI investigators on the case never said who that third-party was. Some reports showed that it may be the Israel firm Cellebrite, a provider of mobile forensics software, but the company itself has not confirmed this.

The FBI filed a status report yesterday telling the judge that Apple's assistance is no longer necessary. The report stated:

"The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by Court's Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016."

The FBI investigators have not disclosed what was found on the phone, and at this point it is still unclear if there was anything that warranted the search. Many are wondering whether the highly publicized fight between the agency and Apple was even worth it. FBI has denied that it was trying to set a precedent so that other government agencies could later demand the same kind of assistance from Apple to unlock iPhones involved in other cases. However, many other law enforcement officials have said the exact opposite, that they were indeed waiting for this case to conclude so they can use the precedent in their favor.

Nonetheless, a recent New York case already set a precedent for similar cases, agreeing that government agencies and officials can't compel Apple to unlock its devices. Therefore, although it's unlikely that this is the last time that the FBI demands assistance with unlocking iPhones, Apple will already have a precedent on which to rely on.

Companies that use strong encryption in their products and services will also need to be more vigilant in the future; the FBI and other U.S. government agencies will likely try to not make these cases public anymore. Many similar cases have not been disclosed in the past, so we don't know whether some companies may have helped law enforcement agencies or not. 

EFF, OTI Ask For Disclosure

The EFF said that the FBI should tell Apple what the vulnerability was that allowed it to unlock the phone. An anonymous law enforcement official told CNN that it's still too early to know whether the same vulnerability can work on other iPhones.

The EFF said that according to the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP), which is the government's own policy for how it deals with disclosing vulnerabilities, the FBI must disclose the vulnerability if it affects just this one phone, but especially if it can affect other devices. As part of its mission to increase public safety, it's FBI's responsibility to help Apple fix the flaw in its devices, but this also seems to be strongly encouraged by the administration's own executive policy.

Ross Schulman, senior policy counsel at the Open Technology Institute (OTI), also said that if the vulnerability isn't fixed, other nations could hack into Apple's iPhones the same way; it's the U.S. government's duty to disclose the vulnerability to the company:

"The bug is, so far as we know, widely distributed and can give complete access to a device that so many of us rely on daily. Those are great reasons to tell Apple so they can fix the problem," Ross Schulman told CNN.

Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu. 

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Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.