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Department Of Justice Says It No Longer Needs Apple's Help To Unlock iPhone
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Department Of Justice Says It No Longer Needs Apple's Help To Unlock iPhone

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Department Of Justice Says It No Longer Needs Apple's Help To Unlock iPhone

Department Of Justice Says It No Longer Needs Apple's Help To Unlock iPhone
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The Justice Department has asked a federal court to vacate its order that Apple write software to help the FBI access data in the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. The department tells the court in a filing that it has found a way to access data in the locked phone.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Department of Justice has told a federal court it no longer needs Apple's help to break into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The department is withdrawing its lawsuit against the company which had refused to write software to help officials retrieve data from the phone.

Joining me now to talk about this is NPR's Laura Sydell. And Laura, the Justice Department said the only way it could get into the phone was with Apple's help. What happened here?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: That is exactly what they said. And they publicized it widely because the - Apple and the DOJ had a big fight over it. And when they did, people started to come forward and say, you know what? We can help you break through. And they did. And apparently somebody successfully helped the Justice Department break into the phone.

MCEVERS: Who was it that helped?

SYDELL: They will not say.

MCEVERS: OK.

SYDELL: They are keeping it a secret.

MCEVERS: OK.

SYDELL: I will say that the phone they broke into was an iPhone 5c, and it was running iOS 9.

MCEVERS: It's important that we know about that level of detail. I mean, is it important that is is a 5c model?

SYDELL: I would say it's important in the sense that one of the things Apple's said in resisting the Justice Department was that if you build something - if we build software that breaks into our own phone, it will make all the other phones less secure because once it exists in the world, hackers will know it's there. They will try and find whatever that key is, whatever that software is. So arguable now (laughter) if you have a 5c model and it's running iOS 9, there is a chance that it is less secure.

MCEVERS: What's the larger story here? I mean, does this mean that the Department of Justice is going to try to get into other phones?

SYDELL: The Department of Justice, which had a call this afternoon and spoke with reporters, pretty much said we're only talking about this phone right now. They refused to say that this would have anything more to do with other phones. They would say that they generally work with state and law enforcement officials around the country and that they generally share information with them. So one could infer that perhaps they will help in other cases.

MCEVERS: Does this case set an legal precedents?

SYDELL: It doesn't because the case didn't really even go to court. You know, initially, Apple was ordered by a local magistrate to help the Justice Department break into this phone. And Apple refused, and they appealed. And right before - really, literally the day before they were supposed to go into court on the appeal, the Justice Department pulled back and said, wait a minute; somebody came along to help us. So we think that, you know, maybe that will happen. So it didn't set a legal precedent.

There is a case in New York, in Brooklyn, where a magistrate - a federal magistrate found in Apple's favor and said they didn't have to help the Justice Department. That case, though, is being appealed by the government. So there's a lot in play in terms of legal precedent right now.

MCEVERS: What do we know about what they found on the phone in this case - in the San Bernardino case?

SYDELL: Once again, they are not saying. All they are saying is that they are going to do everything they can, use all their investigative tools to get at what is in the phone. So we still don't know if there's even anything on the phone that's going to help know if there were further attacks planned or who they were communicating with. And they have not said if they will ever tell us that.

MCEVERS: That is NPR's Laura Sydell on the decision by the Department of Justice that it no longer needs Apple's help to break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Thanks so much, Laura.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

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The FBI Has Successfully Unlocked The iPhone Without Apple's Help

Customers visit the Apple store at Grand Central Terminal in New York on March 1. i
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Customers visit the Apple store at Grand Central Terminal in New York on March 1.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

The high-profile public and legal dispute between the government and Apple is officially over after the FBI managed to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists without Apple's help.

The Justice Department says it has successfully retrieved the data from the phone and is asking the court to vacate its order for Apple's assistance.

"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," U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement, adding that the investigation will continue to ensure that all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack is collected.

The government is not saying exactly what data were found on the phone. DOJ spokeswoman Melanie Newman says the FBI is currently reviewing the information on the phone, consistent with standard investigatory procedures.

This means it took FBI experts about a week to test the third-party tool that allowed them to crack the iPhone pass code. For weeks, the FBI had said only Apple could help investigators lift the iPhone security features that stood in the way of its guessing the pass code. But last week, the government said a third party showed the FBI a new method that didn't require Apple's help.

Apple released a statement saying the government should never have tried to force the company to cooperate:

"From the beginning, we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government's dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.

"We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated."

The end of this legal standoff also means that no legal precedent gets set for the scope of government's power to compel an unwilling company to cooperate in an investigation, for instance by writing special new software as in Apple's case.

"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," DOJ's Newman said. "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."

As we have reported before, the government may have unlocked the password on the phone by tinkering with the hardware — given that the investigators have the physical phone — or by exploiting an obscure flaw in the iPhone software. A discovery of a software vulnerability would be a major reason for the FBI to keep the tool secret and reuse it in other investigations involving older versions of iPhones, like the iPhone 5C at stake here.

Apple's lawyers have previously said they would push for the government to disclose the third-party tool.

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