March 29, 2016
The Justice Department revealed it has learned a way to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone without help from Apple. Farook was a gunman in the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people. The announcement stalls the legal standoff between the federal government and Apple; the Justice Department will withdraw its efforts to enlist the tech company’s help in the investigation. While the news suspends the privacy vs. security debate, at least temporarily, law enforcement’s ability to open the device without Apple’s assistance raises new concerns.
The announcement brings into question the security strength of Apple’s encryption. “The development also creates potential for new conflicts between the government and Apple about the method used to open the device and whether that technique will be disclosed,” notes The New York Times.
While Apple’s attorneys had stated their interest in the methods used to crack the phone, the government could classify any tools or methods. According to Esha Bhandari, a staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, the government has a process to determine when it would share information about vulnerabilities so that companies can make necessary changes.
“I would hope they would give that information to Apple so that it can patch any weaknesses,” she said, “but if the government classifies the tool, that suggests it may not.”
NYT quotes Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, who suggested that the broader battle over access to data from electronic devices will continue.
“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,” she 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.”