FBI may be able to hack San Bernardino phone, pauses Apple case

FBI may be able to hack San Bernardino phone, pauses Apple case
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A federal judge late on Monday pushed pause on the FBI’s legal standoff with Apple just a day before lawyers were set to deliver oral arguments in a California courtroom.

Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym called off Tuesday’s hearing after the government declared investigators might not need the company's help to break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

"On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking [shooter Syed Rizwan] Farook's iPhone,” the government said in a late Monday court filing.

The hearing was slated for Tuesday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Riverside, Calif.

The cancellation is a surprising twist in what has already been a high-profile case. The FBI had not indicated in recent weeks that it was still trying to hack Farook's phone, making Monday's news all the more unexpected.

Apple attorneys told reporters in a late Monday conference call they were just as shocked as everyone else when they found out about the request.

The abrupt stop has thrown the Apple-FBI standoff into limbo after weeks of mounting anticipation leading up to Tuesday's hearing.

Apple said it is not sure what the government decision means for its fight against the FBI's request. The new developments could completely void the case, or the two sides could be right back in the same place in a few weeks, on the precipice of another hearing, the attorneys said.

What method the Justice Department has discovered at such a late stage is not clear, nor are there clues about the “outside party” assisting the investigation.

Apple attorneys maintained they were not aware of any vulnerabilities in the operating system used by Farook, who with his wife killed 14 people last year in California.

And the Department of Justice (DOJ) did not give any details about its possible new mechanism of gathering the data, attorneys added.  

The DOJ's filing, however, came one day after researchers at Johns Hopkins University found a security flaw in Apple software that allowed them to pierce the company’s encryption.

The filing gives no indication about whether this is the method the Department of Justice is talking about. Apple attorneys also stressed they had no insight into what the FBI had been shown.

Regardless, the government said it wants to play out this lead before continuing with its case against Apple.

“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook's iPhone,” it said. “If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc.”

Pym ordered the government to issue a status report by April 5, outlining whether its efforts to gain access to the phone were successful.

Monday's unforeseen announcement is the latest twist in a battle between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. Tensions over the spread of encryption algorithms that can make someone’s communications impossible to access without a password have been simmering for months. The fight more recently got a public face with Apple’s high-profile refusal to cooperate. 

In the court case, Pym had ordered Apple to create new software allowing FBI investigators to disable security mechanisms on Farook’s iPhone so that they could guess an infinite number of passwords and break in.

The legal challenge had been seen as a test case for the government’s power to compel private companies to access users’ data on behalf of the government.

Apple attorneys were reluctant to declare victory still, with the next step unclear.  

If the FBI’s newfound method for accessing Farook’s phone is successful, a broader standoff will have to wait.

Updated at 9:36 p.m.