WASHINGTON, March 21, 2016 – Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym canceled a scheduled hearing in California after the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it may not need Apple’s assistance breaking into an iPhone that was used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists. 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.
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.
DOJ spokeswoman Melanie Newman released a statement saying they will need more time to determine whether their new method will not destroy data on the phone. “If this solution works, it will allow us to search the phone and continue our investigation into the terrorist attack that killed 14 people and wounded 22 people.” 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 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.
A judge in February ruled that Apple must comply with the government’s request, and the DOJ and Apple were due back before that judge on Tuesday after a month of legal briefings. If the government is ultimately successful, it would point to a vulnerability in Apple’s operating system. Apple lawyers said the FBI has provided no information on how it might gain access to the phone. The company’s lawyers said any vulnerability in the phone supports what it’s been saying all along: that Apple is in an arms race against criminals who are looking for security gaps.
Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated his company’s reasons for refusing to go along with the FBI at a product launch held at the company’s Cupertino headquarters earlier Monday. For weeks leading up to Tuesday’s now-postponed hearing, company and government officials engaged in an escalating war of words in the standoff between privacy advocates and national security interests.