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FBI Successfully Unlocks iPhone Used In San Bernardino Shooting: The Big Question Is How

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The FBI successfully breaks into the iPhone involved in the San Bernardino shooting, no longer requiring the help of Apple.

After requesting to postpone the scheduled hearing in a courtroom in Riverside, California – to which Apple did not object to – the U.S. Department of Justice was scheduled to confirm whether the FBI could access the data stored in the iPhone on April 5. Needless to say, the government body did not need to wait until the set date to do so, dropping the case after investigators cracked the device.

"The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by Court's Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016," Eileen Decker, a U.S. attorney, says (PDF) in a court filing.

That means that Apple essentially won the legal run-in with the U.S. government this time around, as the "dangerous precedent" that Apple CEO Tim Cook says won't be set for now at least.

Before this development unfolded, the FBI has been trying to force the company into developing an entirely new iOS or back door to bypass the iPhone's security measures. The investigators have been using the All Writs Act that dates back to 1789 to push their efforts.

However, the big question of how the investigators accomplished the task is yet to be cleared up. The only information about it is that they enlisted the help of a non-government entity to gain access to the iPhone in question.

This could be a worrisome matter, as the government has the means to crack the code of even modern iPhones. Apple once said that it's next to impossible for anyone and even the engineers at the company themselves to crack an iPhone. To make things worse, the Department of Justice intends to keep the specifics to themselves.

An unidentified law enforcement representative told reporters in an evening call back in Monday that the Department of Justice won't go into detail regarding the data that was extracted. They also mentioned that who the outside assistance is won't be disclosed to the company.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Esha Bhandari says that in cases like this, the government will decide to provide manufacturers with the information about certain vulnerabilities so that they can be addressed properly.

"From a legal standpoint, what happened in the San Bernardino case doesn't mean the fight is over. I would hope they would give that information to Apple so that it can patch any weaknesses, but if the government classifies the tool, that suggests it may not," Bhandari says.

However, it looks like the Department of Justice has already made a decision.

The bottom line is that the bout between the Cupertino brand and the Department of Justice is far from over, not to mention that the authorities are still looking into accessing more than a dozen iPhones under the All Writs Act as well.

It's also worth mentioning that iOS security expert Jonathan Zdziarski demonstrated NAND mirroring, a copying technique that could provide unlimited tries of breaking the iPhone's passcode. It's widely believed that this is the method that the FBI used.

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