The government may not need Apple’s help to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone after all: The Department of Justice revealed in a last-minute filing Monday that it may have found another way to unlock the iPhone in question, and asked a judge to postpone a hearing in its case against Apple that was scheduled to begin this Tuesday.
The court followed through on that request, and gave the government until April 5 to deliver an update on its efforts. The move clearly came as a surprise to Apple, which used its iPhone unveiling on Monday to further drum up support for its position.
During the press event, Apple CEO Tim Cook said it was imperative for the company to defend encryption. “We owe it to our customers, and we owe it to our country,” he said.
The postponed hearing — and the possibility of the government backing down — is just the latest twist in a very public spat between the Department of Justice and Apple that began when the FBI asked the tech company for help with its investigation of the San Bernardino shooting.
Apple gave prosecutors access to the iCloud account of one of the shooters, but the iPhone connected to the account hadn’t backed up any data for a few weeks before the attacks. That’s why the FBI asked Apple to write special software to help it hack the iPhone — a request that Apple declined. The Feds went to court, and won, but Apple appealed.
In its filing on Monday, the Justice Department claimed that it had been approached by a third party that had figured out another way into the device. This could make the whole case moot. But it also puts Apple into an uncomfortable position: The company had been claiming all along that secure encryption was essential to the iPhone. Now, the government essentially says that Apple’s encryption isn’t that secure at all.
In the end, the question of encryption, privacy and security in the digital age will likely be decided by Congress — and Apple seemed to prepare this week for just that, with Cook saying Monday: “We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy.”