Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice were supposed to have a high-stakes courtroom date today, which is being delayed as the government is now trying to get what it needs from a terrorist's iPhone without the tech giant's court-mandated help.
Apple is publicly opposing a court order to help unlock an encrypted county-owned iPhone 5C that was used by Syed Farook, one of the terrorists involved in a Dec. 2, 2015, mass shooting that killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in San Bernardino, Calif. The Department of Justice was granted a courtroom delay until at least April 5, by which time the government will need to file a status report with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, where the case is being heard.
In its legal filing, the DOJ emphasized that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been attempting to gain access to the information on the terrorist iPhone since the device was first recovered on December 3, 2015.
"On Sunday, March 20, 2016, an outside party demonstrated to the FBI a possible method for unlocking Farook's iPhone," the DOJ's legal filing states. "Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook's iPhone."
Neither the FBI nor the DOJ identified the source of the new third-party method that could help bypass iPhone security.
At the heart of the iPhone unlocking issue is the fact that the device is set up so that, after a certain number of incorrect passcode attempts, it will erase all of its contents. The DOJ is trying to avoid the erasure of the device's contents, which is why it was seeking Apple's assistance to bypass the iPhone's security. Specifically, the government asked Apple to build a tool that would enable the FBI to "bypass or disable the auto-erase function." Apple has argued that the government, in effect, is asking for a backdoor that could potentially compromise the security of all Apple iOS devices.
At the new iPhone SE launch on March 21, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated his company's position on the government's request. He also noted that he did not expect to be at odds with the U.S. government.
"We will not shrink from this responsibility," Cook said. "We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy."
The delay in the courtroom date for Apple versus the FBI comes as public opinion continues to shift in favor of Apple. A new study from Vrge Analytics published today found that, among those who had made up their minds, 30 percent of Americans agree with the FBI's position in the case, while 42 percent agree with Apple.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.