The Justice Department is withdrawing its case against Apple, telling a federal court Monday it was able to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters without the tech giant's help.
“The FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by this Court Order,” Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said in a statement.
The FBI had asked the courts to direct Apple to unlock the iPhone, but at the last minute, delayed the first court hearing last week. At the time, authorities said they wanted to test a new method to unlock the phone without Apple's assistance.
In a motion filed Monday, the DOJ told the court that method proved successful, giving authorities access to the data on the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of two shooters who killed 14 people in the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack in December.
The withdrawal of the DOJ lawsuit brings an unexpected and rapid conclusion to a divisive battle that many thought would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Apple’s defiance of an FBI court order last month touched off a heated debate over government access to encrypted data that has enveloped Capitol Hill and spread to the campaign trail.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels have only brought added urgency to the debate.
Law enforcement officials have long pushed for greater access to encrypted data, warning that criminals and terrorists are using the technology to help hide from authorities, or “go dark.”
But the tech community and privacy advocates have cautioned that guaranteeing access to secure data weakens global digital security, and potentially endangers online privacy.
The Apple-FBI standoff quickly became a proxy for this long-standing battle.
The FBI wanted Apple to create software to disable a failsafe security feature that would wipe the phone’s memory if an incorrect password were attempted incorrectly 10 times.
In its refusal, Apple said that software was akin to a dangerous “backdoor” that could give hackers access to all iPhones. The company also argued that compiling a company to generate code — or “speech” — violated the First Amendment.
Apple also warned that complying would set a troubling precedent that empowers law enforcement to ask other companies to undermine their own security.
“This case should never have been brought,” Apple said in a statement late Monday night.
The FBI insisted that such a method was the only way to access Farook's phone, and that its request was not meant to set a precedent.
“At the time we made the [initial] filing, it was a last resort,” a law enforcement official told reporters in a conference call late Monday.
The bureau suddenly changed course last week, when it said a third party outside the government had approached the agency with a previously undiscovered way to crack into the phone. It remains unclear what the method is, or who discovered it.
“I don’t think we’re going to go into any details other than what we put in our filing before,” the law enforcement official said.
The official also declined to give any indication of what might be on Farook's phone.
Despite backing down from its controversial court order in San Bernardino, the Justice Department did not rule out using the approach in future cases, emphasizing that San Bernardino was not a "test case."
According to reports, there are at least a dozen other criminal cases in the country where law enforcement is seeking help to unlock phones.
Apple also recently asked a New York judge to press pause on a similar case revolving around the locked iPhone of a convicted drug trafficker. The government is appealing the judge's recent decision that Apple could not be forced to comply with the request to help unlock the phone.
“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” Newman said.
The law enforcement official would only confirm that the method used to hack Farook’s phone worked on that one phone, an iPhone 5c running a version of Apple’s iOS 9 operating system.
“It’s premature to say anything about our ability to access other phones at this point,” the official said.
Apple did not say how the government’s decision might affect the company’s strategy in other cases around the country. But the Silicon Valley firm did seek to assuage worries that the FBI’s successful hack may have exposed security flaws its products.
“We will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated,” it said.
The company also indicated it would not shy from rebuffing similar court orders in the future.
“This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy,” it said. “Apple remains committed to participating in that discussion.”
— This story was updated at 9:58 p.m.
Read: Justice Department's request to drop iPhone court order: