The Justice Department said on Monday that it might no longer need Apple’s assistance in opening an iPhone used by a gunman in the San Bernardino, Calif., rampage last year.
The disclosure led a judge to postpone a court hearing over the issue and temporarily sidesteps what has become a bitter clash with the world’s most valuable company.
In a new court filing, the government said an outside party had demonstrated a way for the F.B.I. to possibly unlock the phone used by the gunman, Syed Rizwan Farook. The hearing in the contentious case — Apple has loudly opposed opening the iPhone, citing privacy concerns and igniting a heated debate — was originally set for Tuesday.
While the Justice Department must test this method, if it works “it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple,” it said in its filing. The Justice Department added that it would file a status report by April 5 on its progress.
The change is a reprieve in the clash that has erupted over how and when the authorities should use the troves of digital data collected and stored by tech companies. The two sides have traded barbs over the issue since last month, when Apple received a court order demanding that the company weaken the security of the iPhone so law enforcement officials could gain access to the data in it.
The case has been viewed as a watershed moment in the debate over privacy and security.
Apple had opposed the court order, arguing that it would be a slippery slope that could force the company to open many iPhones, thus compromising the privacy of its customers and the strength of its product security. President Obama said this month that the law enforcement authorities must be able to legally collect information from smartphones and other devices, adding that he opposed the stance on encryption taken by tech companies like Apple.
Late on Monday, Judge Sheri N. Pym, the federal magistrate judge in the United States District Court for the Central District of California who was set to hold the hearing, agreed to grant the Justice Department’s motion to postpone the hearing.
The emergence of a potential third-party method to open the iPhone was a surprise, as the government said more than a dozen times in court filings that it could open the phone only with Apple’s help. The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey Jr., also reiterated that point several times during a hearing before Congress on March 1.
The new method could forestall, but is unlikely to entirely head off, a showdown between Silicon Valley and the Justice Department over encryption.
“This will only delay an inevitable fight over whether the government can force Apple to break the security of its devices,” said Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Katie Benner and Matt Apuzzo