Apple’s legal standoff with the FBI ended Monday, but experts say the issues behind it will come up again, as more tech companies take measures to guard their customers’ messages, photos, business records and other files.
After weeks of heated debate, in which Apple had resisted the FBI’s demand for help, authorities say they found their own way to get the data from an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters.
Confused by all the back-and-forth in this high-stakes dispute? AP explains:
WHAT WAS THE FIGHT ABOUT?
At the Justice Department’s request, a federal judge ordered Apple Inc. last month to help the FBI unlock an encrypted iPhone used by Syed Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people in December. Specifically, the government wanted Apple to create software that would override an “auto-wipe” feature which is designed to kick in after anyone makes 10 wrong attempts at guessing the iPhone’s passcode. Once that feature is activated, it renders all the data on the phone permanently unreadable.
Apple said it could create the software the government wanted, but it argued vehemently that doing so would be a bad idea. CEO Tim Cook said the order would set a precedent for more government demands, both in the United States and around the world. Apple also said the software could be stolen by hackers and used against other iPhones.
Federal authorities insisted they were only asking for Apple’s help in a single case, although prosecutors nationwide have said they wanted similar assistance in other cases where iPhones have been seized. While it’s unclear if any useful information was stored on the iPhone, FBI Director James Comey said authorities owed it to the San Bernardino victims to leave no stone unturned in their investigation.
WHY DID THIS TURN INTO SUCH A BIG DEAL?
The case crystallised some long-simmering frustrations and conflict between the tech industry and law enforcement authorities.
Apple and other tech companies have been steadily increasing their use of encryption and other safeguards to protect their customers’ data, following a wave of recent hacking attacks and revelations about government data-collection by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Law enforcement officials, including Comey, have complained that encryption and other data safeguards are helping dangerous people hide their activities, while interfering with the government’s ability to investigate crimes.
In the San Bernardino case, Apple drew support from other leading tech companies, computer security experts and civil liberties groups. They filed court briefs arguing the government was going too far in trying to force a company to create software that threatened its own customers’ security. Meanwhile, top officials in the Obama administration, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, denounced Apple’s stance and accused the company of trying to rewrite the rules for government investigations.
WHAT DID THE JUDGE DECIDE?
The judge didn’t have to rule. Cook had said he was prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But last week, just one day before Magistrate Sheri Pym had planned to hold a hearing on the dispute, the Justice Department asked for a delay. Authorities said an unnamed “outside party” had come forward with a technical solution to unlocking the phone, which the FBI needed time to test out.
Then on Monday of this week, the government reported that it had successfully accessed the iPhone’s files and no longer needed Apple’s help. For that reason, the Justice Department asked the magistrate to withdraw the order she issued in February.
SO WHO WON?
Each side can claim a victory: Authorities say they achieved their goal of getting into the iPhone, while Apple successfully resisted a court order that it contends would be harmful to its customers.
Even so, the FBI may have lost some credibility. After repeatedly insisting that only Apple had the means to help authorities unlock the phone, it turned out there was another way.
In the court of public opinion, Apple made a strong case that it was standing up for its customers, and an important principle. But some people may believe the company should have done more to help law enforcement.
DOES THAT END THE MATTER?
It probably ends the dispute over one iPhone, but it’s not the last we’ll hear of this issue.
Law enforcement officials around the country still want to get into other iPhones. The FBI hasn’t said how it got into the San Bernardino iPhone, but it may be able to use the same method in other cases. And we don’t know who provided the solution that the FBI used. It’s possible the method was devised by a private forensics expert or firm that will sell the service to other clients in the future.
Apple, of course, wants to know what method the FBI used so the company can decide if there’s an iPhone vulnerability that needs to be fixed. Even if the FBI doesn’t tell them, security experts predict Apple and other tech companies will keep adding more security measures to its products.
That could set the stage for more legal confrontations. Meanwhile, Congress has held hearings on the issue. Some legislators have discussed limiting how much help the government can demand of tech companies, while others want to require tech companies to provide more assistance in the future.