Apple Vs. The FBI: The Unanswered Questions And Unsettled Issues : All Tech Considered The FBI isn't saying if it can reuse its mystery digital crowbar to unlock other iPhones. The standoff is likely to be replayed as new technologies become a growing element of criminal investigations.

Apple Vs. The FBI: The Unanswered Questions And Unsettled Issues

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We're going to take a look now at the next steps in the dispute between Apple and the Justice Department. The two had been fighting over access to the locked iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The dramatic, very public standoff came to a pretty un-dramatic end yesterday when the Justice Department said they didn't need Apple's help after all.

In a moment, we're going to get reaction from the cofounder of a tech company that supported Apple. First we've got NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh on the line. Hi, Alina.


MCEVERS: So a month ago, the FBI said that only Apple could help unlock this iPhone. And now they're saying that's not true. They've figured out another way. How did all of this happen?

SELYUKH: What they say played a key role is this is worldwide attention to the case. Previously they said they'd kind of talked to everybody they could and arrived at the conclusion that Apple writing special software was the only surefire way to crack the pass code on this iPhone.

But then this undisclosed third-party came in and proposed an undisclosed method that didn't rely on Apple's help. And now the FBI says they have tested the technique, and more so, the technique has worked. A they did get the information off this iPhone.

MCEVERS: So in the end, I mean, neither Apple nor the FBI really come out looking very good here.

SELYUKH: In essence, the FBI's expertise has come under question. People are saying, how come the FBI didn't know that this tactic existed out there? Why didn't they find this solution before they went to court? And versely (ph), with Apple, you've got a lot of questions about the security of the iPhones.


SELYUKH: How come they did know themselves that this technique existed that could undermine the security features on this phone?

MCEVERS: So does this mean now that the FBI can unlock any iPhone?

SELYUKH: It really entirely depends on how they unlock this particular phone. There are theories, and practically, there are two ways they could have done it.

One of them would mean that they tinkered with the hardware of the phone, meaning they went inside and messed with - I don't know - a memory chip on the inside. That kind of technique could be applied to the older version of iPhones. In this case, this was a 5c, which is an older generation.

And then there's the software approach where they might be exploiting some kind of obscure flaw in the software, which is a higher level of vulnerability, and security researchers say that it could potentially be applied to a much broader group of iPhones, including the newer ones. We don't know which of these two the FBI's using, and we may never find out because there's nothing legally requiring the government to ever disclose this tool.

MCEVERS: So what does this mean in terms of legal precedent going forward - anything?

SELYUKH: That's probably one of the biggest takeaways about this case - is that the major stake in this case was whether the government could compel an unwilling third party to cooperate in a criminal investigation. And we come out with no case law, no path forward that has been drafted by a court for future disputes.

And a lot of observers do expect that this will get replayed whether with Apple or another encrypted messaging company. We will see another replay of this kind of debate about governments access to encrypted information and compelling a tech company to help them get that access in the future.

MCEVERS: That's NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh. Thank you.

SELYUKH: Thanks.

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