Third-Party Tech Help Resolves FBI-Apple Standoff Over Killer's iPhone

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FBI's ability to get third-party technical help to unlock an iPhone at the center of a terrorism investigation raises the question of why it wanted to legally compel Apple to do the job.

FBI iPhone Hack 2

The drama is over. The rancorous legal drama during which the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to compel Apple to create a work-around that would allow the agency to bypass iOS security measures ended when the bureau announced that it had gained access to an iPhone 5C used by terrorists and that Apple's help was no longer necessary.

Previously, the FBI had asked for a delay in its action against Apple when the agency said that it had received an offer of help from a third party and that the method looked like it would work.

Then on March 28, the FBI told the court that it was able to gain access to the iPhone used by Sayed Farook, the San Bernardino County employee turned terrorist who killed 14 of his colleagues.

The FBI has not said how it gained access to the iPhone, but NBC News has reported that it received confirmation from official sources that the FBI was helped by an Israeli company, Cellebrite, that makes mobile forensic devices. The company has not responded to multiple attempts by eWEEK to confirm the story or otherwise comment.

Once the FBI was able to gain access to the iPhone, it was able to extract its contents. While Cellebrite declined to comment on whether it assisted the FBI, the company's Website does include detailed information about its ability to gain access to iOS devices as well as to recover passcodes. Cellebrite has even provided a video of these processes in action.

Regardless of whether Cellebrite is actually the third party that helped the FBI, the technology clearly exists, and has existed for some time. In fact, the U.S. government is listed as one of Cellebrite's biggest customers.

Given the rancor of the legal battle that flared up over Apple's refusal to help the FBI break one iPhone's security, one has to wonder what the government was really up to.

After all, Cellebrite's existence and its capabilities aren't secrets. The company has been around for nearly 20 years and has been in the forensics business most of that time. Cellebrite's Website clearly states its services and capabilities.

Likewise, Apple certainly knows about Cellebrite. The company's products are widely used in mobile phone stores for transferring data between phones. Apple itself reportedly uses Cellebrite products in some of its own stores.

So if such an obvious solution exists that both the FBI and Apple know about, why all the drama? The only explanation that makes sense is that the government wanted to force a court order that would then establish a precedent that would ensure future government access to mobile devices regardless of the level of protection or the quality of the encryption.

For its part, Apple needed to draw a line in the sand, if only to reassure its customers that it wouldn't break its own privacy promises.

In a sense, both sides can now say they've won. The FBI has been able to get past the iPhone's lock and Apple has been able to say they didn't help.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...