Security & Fraud

Does The DOJ Delay Spell Victory For Apple?

Just when everyone was waiting to hear what would happen out of the start of the FBI-Apple hearing, the Department of Justice put a halt on the case — at least temporarily.

The Department of Justice requested Tuesday (March 22) to delay the hearing that was supposed to happen regarding the controversial San Bernardino iPhone case. But the reasoning? It claims that it doesn’t need Apple anymore for help — news that first broke Monday evening. But, by Tuesday morning, the judge ruled to postpone the hearing.

The postponement came in the wake of a Sunday filing with the United States District Court in Riverside, California, in which the government said an “outside party” showed the FBI there was a possible alternate method to unlock the phone that was used by the terrorist who killed 14 people last December.

If the method works, then it would eliminate the need for Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone. The postponement is the newest development in a “closely watched case over the balance between privacy and national security in the digital age.” The government originally argued that it indeed needed Apple’s assistance in unlocking the phone, with the new acknowledgement that the “outside party” is not from within governmental intelligence agencies.

The acknowledgement of the possibility of outside help diminishes the contention that Apple should have to come to the department’s aid and may, in fact, signal that the government is backing off this claim.

“As the FBI continued to conduct its own research and as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention on this case, others outside the U.S. government have continued to contact the U.S. government offering avenues of possible research,” the filing reads.

While Apple may soon win its day in court, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to win its battle to protect the phone from any backdoor entry that the FBI may want. In fact, the DOJ essentially is saying it’s going to crack Apple’s code with or without its help.

“If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for assistance from Apple,” the filing reads.

The question that remains is if this is a tactic to delay the case or to push Apple to finally help the FBI — but without needing a court order to do so. This also could signal that the FBI doesn’t believe that the judge will rule in its favor.

This also came after Apple’s Big Event, where CEO Tim Cook had some strong words for the U.S. government when addressing the topic of encryption and security.

“Our products are such an important part of people’s daily lives and, with that, comes a significant responsibility. So, before we get started today, I’d like to address something that I know is on the minds of many people this morning. We built the iPhone for you, our customers, and we know that it is a deeply personal device. For many of us, the iPhone is an extension of ourselves. About a month ago, we asked Americans across the country to join in a conversation. We need to decide, as a nation, how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy,” Cook said during the event.

“We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government, but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy. We owe it to our customers, and we owe it to our country. This is an issue that impacts all of us, and we will not shrink from this responsibility,” he continued.

But now, the case’s future is in limbo.

“This filing today represents the FBI completely backing down on this particular case,” said Nate Cardozo, a lawyer at the civil liberties advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, who spoke with NPR. “[But] there may be another case in the future.”

Either way, the controversy shall continue — for now.

“For Apple, it proves their case that the FBI should be trying harder, rather than asking Apple to undermine its security protections,” says Susan Landau, a cybersecurity expert at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, told NPR. “For the FBI, it’s certainly an embarrassment to have gone to this effort in court when there was another route, but it also points out the need to develop the expertise — both the technical expertise and organizational expertise.”

The next step will be hearing what Congress has to say about the matter.

“The conversation has shifted slightly from national security versus privacy to more a security versus security discussion,” Landau said.

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