The FBI has backed down from its legal battle with Apple. In a court filing yesterday, the government said it obtained the necessary data from Syed Farook’s county government owned iPhone and “no longer requires the assistance from Apple.” According to the Department of Justice, it took less than a week for the government to successfully hack into the infamous iPhone 5c that for nearly a month was the subject of a heated public debate on encryption, law enforcement claims of “going dark,” and digital security law in the 21st century.
The government’s central claim in the San Bernardino litigation was that it couldn’t break into the phone without Apple’s help. But ever since February 16, when the DOJ first obtained a court order forcing Apple to write, cryptographically sign, and deliver new code to the iPhone, technology experts have frowned at that central FBI claim. On March 7, ACLU technologist Daniel Kahn Gillmor took the skepticism to the next level by publishing in full one method for hacking into the iPhone, effectively calling the FBI’s bluff.
Now, the DOJ has all but admitted that what it initially told the court was not true. The FBI broke into the phone without Apple’s help, meaning that the San Bernardino litigation is now moot.
What changed? Did the FBI just discover a means of hacking into the phone that it was previously unaware of, as it claims? Probably not. It’s much more likely that the government, having picked a fight it thought it could win, realized there was a very good chance it would lose this case, and chose to back down in the face of precedent that would forbid the government from using the All Writs Act to conscript technology companies into government surveillance service. What initially must have seemed like a slam-dunk for prosecutors intent on gaining history-changing legal precedent quickly morphed into a difficult public relations war pitting the FBI against not just digital security experts but also high-ranking former intelligence officials, who said the FBI’s demand was understandable from a law enforcement perspective but nonetheless dangerous and bad for the country.
What now? The FBI and other law enforcement agencies aren’t likely to give up their fight against secure technology. So while this is a temporary victory, we’ve got to remain vigilant, both in the courts and in congress, where some legislators continue to insist that—contra the basic laws of mathematics—they can reach a political compromise to enable police access to otherwise secure technologies. But if this FBI/Apple fight is any indication, law enforcement faces an uphill battle in its bid to convince the public and legislators that it can defy the laws of math. And that’s a very good thing.