After a long, drawn out legal and media battle that brought worries surrounding, terrorism, encryption, privacy and government spying to the fore, the FBI finally got its way in the San Bernadino shooting case. Despite Apple repeatedly rebuffing their orders to help unlock the iPhone the shooter used in the incident, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found another way to get the job done. And Apple has no idea what it is.
According to a report by Ars Technica, an Apple attorney told reporters in a conference call that the company had no idea how the FBI unlocked the iPhone 5C belonging to Syed Farook who, alongside his wife, shot and killed 14 people in an office building in December. The attorney also offered his suspicions that the hack wouldn’t work on newer iPhones, given that Apple is always working towards improving it’s security, which is something the FBI themselves said earlier yesterday.
Apple said it is unsure whether the FBI were able to manipulate the software or hardware to unlock the phone, or why the method would only work on an iPhone 5C, and clarified that the FBI has not stepped up to reveal their method either. Of course, while the legality and ethics of ordering Apple to create a back door for the FBI was something to be considered, the agency is under no obligations whatsoever to disclose a possible security flaw to the company. In fact, the government has the legal option to deliberately withhold knowledge of a security flaw, if it believes the information may come in handy in future cases. As such, Apple has confirmed that it will not take the FBI to court to demand clarity on the matter.
However, while the FBI managing to crack the phone through a third party and subsequently dropping the case against Apple means tensions are now subsiding, the larger debate the issue drew attention to, that of security vs privacy and encryption as a help or hindrance to law enforcement, remains unresolved. And seeing as this particular hack only works on a now discontinued iPhone model, it might not be too long before we see another case where the FBI attempts to strong arm Apple once more.