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The FBI Plans To Help Local Authorities Hack iPhones

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Photo: Mark Wilson/ Getty Images.
Apple has been fighting a legal battle against the FBI over the unlocking of an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The FBI wanted to use the phone to build their case against the man, but Apple said that unlocking the phone would set a dangerous precedent of permitting government surveillance. They also pledged to make their phones harder to unlock, specifically with the release of iOS 9.3.

The FBI is backing down from their motion. But it’s not all good news; they’re doing so because they say they’ve unlocked the phone.

"The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on [San Bernardino shooter Syed] Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple," the government wrote in court documents filed Monday.

Last week, Department of Justice lawyers asked that the court hearing be delayed as a third party came forward with a possible hack of the phone. That hack appears to have been successful, although they have not disclosed what information they’ve accessed on the shooter’s phone.

"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," United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement released Monday, according to NBC News.

Though the government did hack the phone, it was an iPhone 5C that presumably hasn’t been updated since the shooter was killed in a firefight with police. That means an older phone model with an older operating system that may have been more vulnerable than iOS 9.3. The ruling was set to be a judicial landmark, and one that Apple fought strenuously against.

“This is an issue that impacts all of us, and we will not shrink from this responsibility,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the launch event a week ago.

Update: After reportedly unlocking the San Bernardino shooter's phone, the FBI has told local law enforcement authorities that it will provide technical aid in unlocking devices such as iPhones moving forward.

In a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, Kerry Sleeper, an Assistant Director in the FBI's Office of Partner Engagement wrote, "The FBI will of course consider any tool that might be helpful to our partners. Please know that we will continue to do everything we can to help you consistent with our legal and policy constraints."

Apple, meanwhile, has remained firm in its stance, saying that it will not create an operating system that enables authorities to bypass encryption. In a letter to the public, Apple CEO Tim Cook reasoned, "While the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control."

It's still unclear what method the FBI is using to unlock the phone, if the hack is specific to the OS the phone is running, or the model (it's an iPhone 5c).
This article originally published March 28, 2016.
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