A hearing scheduled for Tuesday, 22 March 2016, between Apple and the Justice Department was unexpectedly cancelled on Monday after a request from the Justice Department. In its application requesting Tuesday’s hearing to be postponed, the Justice Department stated that a third party approached the FBI on Sunday with a possible method that could unlock the iPhone, without requiring assistance from Apple.
On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook’s iPhone. Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone. If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc. (“Apple”) set forth in the All Writs Act Order in this case.
Judge Sheri Pym granted the request after Apple did not object, and the Justice Department will now have to file a status report by 5 April 2016. The court order compelling Apple to assist the FBI has also been stayed by Judge Pym “pending further submissions” because Monday’s submissions from the Justice Department have resulted in “uncertainty surrounding the government’s need for Apple’s assistance”.
It is not clear who contacted the FBI with the possible method, and on a call with BuzzFeed and other reporters, a law enforcement official refused to name them, other than saying that it came “from outside the U.S. government”. Apple’s attorney told reporters that it did not know what the supposed vulnerability is, but that fixing it will be “an urgent priority for the company” and that they will insist that the government share details of the exploit if the case moves forward.
As The New York Times points out, it is unlikely that this is the last we will hear about this case, particularly if the FBI concludes that the new method will not work. In any case, we will learn more when the Justice Department files their status report in the coming weeks before the court imposed deadline of 5 April 2016.
“This will only delay an inevitable fight over whether the government can force Apple to break the security of its devices,” said Alex Abdo, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group.
For the Justice Department, cracking the iPhone would be a mixed blessing. While it would give investigators access to data that they see as crucial to a terrorism investigation, it would cut short the encryption debate that the F.B.I. had been trying to start for years before the Apple case came along.