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Business News/ News / World/  Geeks eclipse courts as FBI tries to hack iPhone without Apple
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Geeks eclipse courts as FBI tries to hack iPhone without Apple

The cancellation avoids a courtroom face-off in a case that may yet redraw the boundary between personal privacy and national security in the mobile Internet age

Apple lawyers added that they would want the government to share the nature of the security vulnerability with the company if the case proceeds. Photo: AFPPremium
Apple lawyers added that they would want the government to share the nature of the security vulnerability with the company if the case proceeds. Photo: AFP

Los Angeles/Washington/San Francisco: In a standoff with Apple Inc. over access to a terrorist’s smartphone, the federal government is favouring a technological workaround over a court clash it risked losing.

The US justice department, which had sued to force Apple to help it gain access to data locked in the iPhone used by an attacker who killed 14 people last year in San Bernardino, California, abruptly switched tack late Monday. It asked a magistrate judge to cancel a court hearing in the case scheduled for Tuesday, instead saying it would test another way of accessing the information.

“An outside party demonstrated to the FBI this past weekend a possible method for unlocking the phone," Melanie Newman, a justice department spokeswoman, said Monday in an e-mailed statement. “We must first test this method to ensure that it doesn’t destroy the data on the phone, but we remain cautiously optimistic."

The cancellation avoids a courtroom face-off—at least for now—in a case that may redraw the boundary between personal privacy and national security in the mobile Internet age. Apple has vigorously opposed the government’s effort to force it to create software to undercut iPhone security features, saying doing so would threaten the privacy and data security of millions of iPhone users. The decision also lets the government avoid what was sure to be a lengthy legal process that could reach the Supreme Court, with no guarantee of victory.

“There’s a lot of people right now who are curious who this third party is," said David O’Brien, a senior researcher with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “It appears the FBI turned away from the opportunity to test its case in court and get a ruling that could have set a precedent."

People ‘curious’

The justice department didn’t identify who stepped forward with a new technique for unlocking the phone.

The government was ordered by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym in Riverside, California, to file a report on the status of its efforts by 5 April. Pym also put on hold her order for Apple to cooperate in the San Bernardino investigation.

Apple attorneys told reporters on a conference call that they have no information about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s new claim that it may be able to access the iPhone without the company’s help. They only found about it Monday, they said.

The lawyers added that they would want the government to share the nature of the security vulnerability with the company if the case proceeds.

New method

The justice department won’t need Apple’s help in running tests and should know by 5 April whether the new method works, said a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.

The entity that approached the justice department on Sunday isn’t part of the US government, said the official, who declined to provide any other details about it.

If the method works, it will eliminate the need for the court case against Apple to continue, but it’s too early to say if the technique could also be applied to other cases, the official said.

Security experts have said there are many ways the FBI could hack into the iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife carried out the December attack in San Bernardino. Both were killed hours later in a police shoot-out.

Exploiting cracks

Jonathan Zdziarski, a cybersecurity researcher who consults with law enforcement, says the FBI might be able to copy the contents of the phone onto a chip and swap it out. Other potential solutions include finding and exploiting cracks in the software. All systems contain flaws and they continue to be found every month in Apple’s software, according to Jason Syversen, a former manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and now chief executive officer of cyber security firm Siege Technologies.

Some experts have argued that the FBI should ask the National Security Agency for help. They note that the NSA is the best-funded spy agency on Earth, employs legions of hackers and almost certainly can break into secure computer systems. But in testimony before Congress this month, Worcester Polytechnic Institute cybersecurity professor Susan Landau said the NSA may be reluctant to help the FBI, since the secretive agency’s hacking abilities could become public should it be hauled into court.

Chief executive officer Tim Cook, at Apple’s product launch Monday announcing the release of a smaller iPhone, opened the event by wading into the political debate over privacy and encryption, saying “We believe strongly we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and your privacy."

Cook went on to introduce a new, smaller iPhone that will start at $399, seeking to jump-start sales of Apple’s flagship product by enticing more users to upgrade, especially in high- growth markets such as China and India. The iPhone SE has a 4- inch-screen and will include the same encryption features, such as Touch ID fingerprint-recognition, as the larger iPhone 6S.

Apple’s product release event closed with rocker Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down blaring over the sound system.Bloomberg

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Published: 22 Mar 2016, 03:10 PM IST
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