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FBI Drops iPhone Case Against Apple After Outside Hack Succeeds

"The government has now successfully accessed the data."

Chip Somodevilla, Gabriella Demczuk / Getty

A mysterious method suggested by a third party appears to have allowed the FBI to hack into the iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the attackers in last year’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., prompting the agency to withdraw its legal case against Apple.

The Justice Department asked a federal judge in California court to vacate its petition to force Apple to help it hack the phone. “The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by Court’s Order,” the filing reads.

The filing doesn’t elaborate on the method used, nor does it hint at any of the information revealed. What it means is that the FBI has achieved a method to access the data stored on the phone, circumventing its security features. The FBI is still reviewing the information retrieved from the phone, and law enforcement officials declined to describe what kind of information they found and whether or not it was useful to the investigation into the shooting that killed 22 people on Dec. 2.

The government delayed its case last week after an unidentified third party came forward and suggested a method to access the data locked up on the phone.

A law enforcement official in a background briefing with reporters declined to elaborate on the identity of the third party, beyond saying that the party is not another U.S. government agency.

The official declined to speculate whether the method will be used on other phones in other investigations, or if the method will be shared with law enforcement agencies at the state and local level, or if information about it will be shared with Apple.

“Right now we’re focused on the San Bernardino case. We can can’t comment on the possibility of future disclosures,” the official said.

It’s also not clear, the official said, that the method works generally on all iPhones. “Right now we know it works on the iPhone 5c that belonged to Farook, which was running a version of iOS 9,” the official said. “We’re not prepared to say anything more than that.”

The Justice Department had created a significant controversy in seeking to force Apple to help it access the data on the phone by invoking the All Writs Act, a law dating to 1789. Apple fought the order, arguing that creating software to help the government would compromise the privacy of Apple iPhone users around the world and set a bad precedent with governments in other countries that would seek the same level of assistance.

In a statement issued after the filing Monday, Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman made it clear that while this action was now moot, there may well be similar conflicts down the road. “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,” she 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.”

U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said, “Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack.”

Apple, via a statement issued late Monday, said the case “never should have been brought.”

“From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a back door into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred,” the statement reads.

Apple went on to say that it will help law enforcement agencies with their investigations to the extent that it can, but will also continue to ratchet up its security measures. “We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.

“Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy,” the statement went on. “Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk. This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy. Apple remains committed to participating in that discussion.”

Update: 6:40 pm PT: This story has been updated to include a statement from Apple.

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