The FBI has dropped its legal case against Apple after admitting it managed to bypass the security of the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters without Apple’s help.
A Los Angeles court ruled earlier this year that Apple would have to help FBI investigators gain access to an iPhone 5C owned by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators of the attack on 80 employees at a training event for the Department of Public Health in San Bernardino, California in December.
The FBI wanted Apple to make a new version of its iPhone operating system in order to circumvent its security features and gain access to the data within.
But the Bureau has admitted that it managed to crack the device using another method, which it would not disclose, and promptly dropped the court case.
Questions remain about how the sudden development would affect privacy in the future, and what happens the next time the US government is frustrated by digital security lockout features.
Government prosecutors had asked a federal judge to vacate a disputed order forcing Apple to help the FBI break into the iPhone, saying it was no longer necessary.
The US justice department said agents are now reviewing the information on the phone.
The government's brief court filing, in the US district court for the Central District of California, provided no details about how the FBI got into the phone. Nor did it identify the non-government ‘outside party’ who showed agents how to get past the phone's security defences.
Apple, who unveiled a smaller iPhone and iPad Pro at an event last week, responded by saying it will continue to increase the security of its products.
"We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along," the company said in a statement, while reiterating its argument that the government's demand for Apple's help was wrong. "This case should never have been brought," it said.
The FBI’s assistant director David Bowdich implied that useful information had been gleaned from iPhone following its unlocking.
"I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before," he said.
Cyber-security expert Mark Skilton, a professor at Warwick Business School, said: "The evidence is that cyber threats are a growing issue that was a core part of the Apple case for not opening up the phone and giving way to potentially more weaknesses.”
“Industry cyber threat reports say this is growing at 66 per cent annually. The issue now is whether this has resolved anything or whether it has simply created a scenario where, 'if we can get round your defence then that is ok' appears to be acceptable.”
Meanwhile, the FBI is asking businesses and software security experts for emergency assistance in its investigation into a pernicious new type of ‘ransomware’ virus used by hackers for extortion.
Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts a victim's data so they cannot gain access to it on their computers, then offers to unlock the system in exchange for payment.
The FBI wants help defeating a particular piece of software known as MSIL/Samas.A that the agency said seeks to encrypt data on entire networks, an alarming change because typically, ransomware has sought to encrypt data one computer at a time.