The FBI may have found a way without Apple’s assistance to unlock the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Justice Department officials said Monday.
Less than 24 hours before a highly anticipated hearing over access to the phone was set to begin, Justice Department lawyers requested a delay. A federal judge here agreed to postpone the oral arguments in which Apple and the U.S. government were set to face off over whether a court could force Apple to help the FBI unlock the phone.
The sudden about-face was a stunning development in a month-long legal saga, as government lawyers and the FBI director had been insisting for the past month that the bureau had found no other way to obtain access to the locked phone than to compel Apple to assist the government.
“Our top priority has always been gaining access into the phone used by the terrorist in San Bernardino,” Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said. “With this goal in mind, the FBI has continued in its efforts to gain access to the phone without Apple’s assistance, even during a month-long period of litigation with the company.”
On Sunday, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Eileen Decker, said in a terse application to a magistrate judge in Riverside, Calif., that “an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method” to unlock the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farouk.
Farouk and his wife were killed in a shootout with police after the Dec. 2 attack, which claimed 14 lives.
If the method works, Decker said, it should eliminate the need for help from Apple.
It could also raise questions about the FBI’s capabilities in unlocking digital devices. “This suggests that the FBI either doesn’t understand the technology well enough or wasn’t telling us the full truth earlier when it said that only Apple could break into the phone,” said Alex Abdo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Apple in the case.
A senior law enforcement official took issue with that statement and said that the great publicity surrounding the case prompted more companies to come forward with potential solutions.
Newman stressed that the bureau must first test the method to ensure it doesn’t destroy the data on the phone. “We remain cautiously optimistic,” she said. “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.”
Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym directed the government to report back by April 5.
SOURCE: Ellen Nakashima
The Washington Post