- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2016

Investigators have successfully accessed data from the iPhone belonging to dead San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook — a development that brings a stunning end to a court battle that could have forced Apple to help law enforcement officials hack the cellphone.

The disclosure was made Monday in a court filing in which the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California sought to withdraw legal action against the tech giant.

“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc.,” Justice Department attorneys wrote in a two-page request to vacate a ruling that would have forced the tech company to assist the FBI.

The third party that has successfully cracked the iPhone’s security feature is not named in the filing, however a Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed that the FBI is already “reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.”

Apple officials had no immediate comment.

The latest development pauses a national debate that pitted privacy interests against national security.

Authorities had sought access to data on the phone as part of their investigation into whether Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had any outside help when they opened fire inside a San Bernardino, California, workplace party in December and killed 14 people.

The showdown between law enforcement authorities and tech companies ramped up in February after a California magistrate ordered Apple to provide technical assistance to the FBI so that agents could attempt to break the four-digit password that protects the work-issued cellphone belonging to Farook.

The ruling would have forced Apple to create a way to bypass a security feature that wipes all data from the iPhone after the password is entered incorrectly too many times. With that feature suspended, investigators could then attempt to enter all four-digit password combinations until they found the right one to unlock the phone.

Apple attorneys argued that by assisting the FBI in hacking the phone, the company would set a dangerous precedent and open a backdoor into the iPhone’s system that would weaken the security of all their products versus all governments worldwide.

“The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have and something we consider too dangerous to create,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook at the outset of the legal battle.

But the notoriety of the FBI investigation apparently brought out a slew of private sleuths who went to work trying to crack the iPhone’s security features.

“People have come from all over the globe with suggestions,” said FBI Director James B. Comey last week, discussing an onslaught of input the agency has received from outside parties.

Just last week a court hearing on the matter was postponed after the government announced that a third party had come forward with a method that could possibly help them access the data without Apple’s aid.

“Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker in a statement issued after the motion to vacate the ruling was filed Monday afternoon.

It’s unclear whether the surprise ending to this legal standoff will affect future battles over privacy and national security or if the FBI might still seek to use the tactic in the future if agents again find themselves unable to gain access to an encrypted cellphone.

According to The Associated Press, a law enforcement official told a conference call of reporters on condition of anonymity that federal law enforcement would continue to aid local and state authorities with gaining evidence — implying that the method would be shared with them.

Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said, “It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties or through the court system when cooperation fails.”

“We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors,” she added in a statement issued Monday.

Just in Manhattan there are 205 iPhones in investigators’ hands which they cannot access for criminal investigations, District Attorney Cyrus Vance told a House panel earlier this month.

There are more than a dozen lower-profile cases in four states in which Apple is opposing requests to help extract information from its devices.

One definite effect of the end of this legal battle would be that Apple can no longer legally request details on how the FBI broke its security. Apple’s lawyers said last week that they hoped that if the government could successfully hack its phones that it would share that information with the California-based technology giant.

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