It would appear the tables have turned in Apple’s legal fight with the FBI over access to the iPhone 5c used by Syed Farook, the deceased gunman of last year’s San Bernardino terrorist attack. The FBI has announced that they have moved to drop the case against Apple after finding their own way into the phone.
As Apple CEO Tim Cook has stressed, saying that the case is over the particular iPhone in question is inaccurate (although perhaps the FBI would disagree) — the concern is that building a tool to circumvent the iPhone’s security could be used on any phone, compromising the security of all iPhones and their owners. Apple sought to prevent this by refusing to comply with an order from the FBI to build such a tool, a position that became the center of much controversy over the past month.
Apple may now be on the back foot. The FBI has said they were able to access the phone with help from an unnamed third party, and has not divulged any details about the method used. According to a New York Times report, the FBI could move to classify those details, leaving Apple in the lurch about how the security of their phones might be compromised. While it’s possible that the solution was specific to the iPhone 5c or iOS 9, Apple (and the public) currently has no way of knowing for sure, and it’s possible that even if the method was phone- or OS version-specific, it could be easily adapted to all iPhones.
Apple will reportedly seek to obtain details from the FBI, but with the case between the two parties quickly becoming toxic, it seems unlikely they will be successful. Despite their principled stand on the value of privacy in the face of security, that would mean the worst case scenario for Apple — not only has the workaround tool they didn’t want to make become reality, they also don’t know the nature of it and who might be affected. Worse still, coming from an unknown third party, there’s even more concern over that tool falling into the wrong hands at some point down the road. The good news is that Apple will probably ramp up their iOS security efforts as a result, but it’s definitely not good news if you found yourself on Apple’s side in this debate.