The FBI might have found a way to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters that would not require Apple’s assistance.
In a filing submitted late Monday in a central California federal court, the FBI asked that a court hearing due to take place on Tuesday be canceled and that court proceedings be suspended until April at the earliest.
The Register reports the court has granted the U.S. Department of Justice its request.
This postponement marks an unexpected reversal for the FBI, which has argued in multiple court filings that it absolutely requires the assistance of Apple in order to unlock an iPhone formerly owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two individuals who perpetrated the mass shooting and attempted bombing in San Bernardino, California last December.
Apple has refused to abide by the DOJ’s demands, arguing that it would need to compromise the security of all iPhones and not just Farook’s device if it were to assist the FBI. Many privacy advocates and well known figures in the tech community, including the CEO of Google, have subsequently rallied behind Apple in defense of its position.
As revealed in Monday’s filing, the FBI has responded to Apple’s refusal by exploring other options through which it could unlock Farook’s iPhone even as it has filed court documents reaffirming the necessity of Apple’s assistance, reports The Guardian.
These efforts have led several “outside parties” unaffiliated with the U.S. government to come forward and offer their technical expertise to the Department of Justice. It is now evident the FBI has chosen to investigate one such party’s method and to report back to the court afterwards.
Security expert Susan Landau, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, feels this sudden abrupt face represents what she has felt to be true all along: that the FBI is lacking in technological capabilities:
“The FBI has been viewing security as an impedance rather than a necessity. That the bureau may not need Apple’s help to access the phone points up what’s been true in this case all along: the FBI needs to strengthen its own technological capabilities.”.
For its part, Apple and its defense attorneys are a bit suspicious about these recent developments. Here is what Alex Abdo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Apple in the case, was reported as saying by The Washington Post:
“This suggests that the FBI either doesn’t understand the technology well enough or wasn’t telling us the full truth earlier when it said that only Apple could break into the phone.”
Apple has gone on to request that the U.S. government share information with the tech giant if it is able to unlock the device. However, if the FBI decides to drop the case, it will be under no obligation to do so.
FBI: Hey Apple, wanna fight?
Apple: Yeah okay, let’s fight
FBI: Ok, gonna fight you now
Apple: K let’s fight.
FBI: Uh something just came up
— Evan Greer (@evan_greer) March 22, 2016
Monday’s filing certainly seems to contradict earlier statements made by the FBI. At this time, however, we neither know the identity of the outside party nor whether their proposed method will work. All we can do is wait and see what happens next.