FBI vs. Apple Case Over, but Larger Privacy Debate Continues

NEWS ANALYSIS: It is certain that we haven't heard the end of this debate. In fact, there may never be a crystal-clear resolution to this problem.

All of a sudden, the U.S. Department of Justice's case against Apple and its defense of security ethics has evaporated. But don't think for one minute that the larger dispute between data privacy and national security has gone away with it.

The DoJ filed court papers March 28 in Riverside, Calif. to drop a legal effort to force Apple to unlock an iPhone 5c that may or may not contain evidence about a mass shooting last Dec. 2 in which 14 people were killed and 21 others wounded by a terrorist couple.

The temporary solution came when the DoJ apparently found its own way to "successfully retrieve the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone," a spokeswoman said in a statement to the press.

The decision to drop the case, in which the DoJ demanded Apple's help to open the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a gunman in the December shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., ends the standoff for now. For five weeks, the case had become increasingly contentious because Apple cited long-term data privacy issues in refusing to aid law enforcement personnel.

FBI Now Reviewing Information on the Terrorist's iPhone 5c

Melanie Newman of the Justice Department said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently reviewing information from the phone.

"It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails," Newman said. "We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors."

It is certain that we haven't heard the end of this issue. In fact, there may never be a crystal-clear resolution to this problem. The government, telecoms and the IT device and security industries have been at odds over these topics for decades.

For weeks, Apple CEO Tim Cook steadfastly refused to order his engineers to create a new software backdoor to access the iPhone so that the FBI could check the information and determine whether other people were involved in the shootings and if subsequent events were planned.

iPhone 5c: Symbol of the Debate

That iPhone 5c has become a symbol of data privacy vs. national security, two sides that are divergent in their interests and purposes. When the FBI obtained a lower court order to see the contents on the iPhone, and when Apple refused to create a backdoor to harvest the data, it looked as though our society had moved inescapably into a make-or-break moment involving no less than national security versus personal liberty.

There still may be a make-or-break moment in the future, but it has been delayed for the time being.

That the DoJ said it was able to unlock an iPhone through an alternative method raises new issues, including questions about the strength of Apple's security on its devices. That may present a whole new set of legal problems having to do with Apple's credibility in safeguarding a lot of personal information. Cook said at a company launch event March 14 that there are now more than 1 billion active Apple devices in the world -- all of which have personal information on them.

The March 28 development also creates potential for new conflicts between the government and Apple. Lawyers for Apple have said that the company will want to know the method used to crack open the device. The government may choose to make that method classified, causing more legal unhappiness.

Apple did not immediately respond to calls for comment from eWEEK.

Is the FBI Trying to Save Face?

There is another aspect to this case. Is the DoJ merely trying to save face, in view of the shifting tide of sentiment against allowing the iPhone to be opened to government scrutiny? After all, how does the public actually know the FBI was able to gain access to the iPhone? The DoJ offered no proof March 28 that it now has access and will not divulge any information about how it was able to crack the iPhone -- or who it might have hired to do it.

Why did the FBI say publicly 19 times that it could not break into the iPhone without Apple's help, and then, all of a sudden, word comes that it did get into it? One cannot blame those who are skeptical of the FBI's approach to this entire incident.

National polls at first showed that more than half of U.S. citizens sided with the FBI in its quest to crack the iPhone. Five weeks later, the polls were reversed, and even conservative anti-terror hawk Sen. Lindsay Graham reversed his own position from the FBI's side to Apple after he studied the realities of the issue more carefully.

"The FBI says it has unlocked the iPhone in the San Bernardino case without Apple's help," said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future, in a media advisory. "This news should not come as a surprise; the consensus among credible technical experts has always been that there were multiple ways the FBI could attempt to bypass the phone's security, and that the government's goal in its legal fight with Apple was not to access the data on the phone but rather to set a precedent to compel private companies to build backdoors into their products.

"The FBI's credibility just hit a new low," Greer wrote. "They repeatedly lied to the court and the public in pursuit of a dangerous precedent that would have made all of us less safe. Fortunately, Internet users mobilized quickly and powerfully to educate the public about the dangers of backdoors, and together we forced the government to back down."

Fight for the Future is a grassroots digital rights advocacy group based in Massachusetts with more than 1.4 million members that fights to protect the Internet as a platform for freedom of expression and social change. They're best known for organizing the massive online protests against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), for net neutrality and against government surveillance.

"This will go down in history as one of the FBI's biggest public relations failures," said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future. "It couldn't be clearer that they read the tea leaves, saw they were going to lose both in the court of law and the court of public opinion, and gave up, for now at least."

"For now." That's the operative term.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...