Department Of Justice Says It No Longer Needs Apple's Help To Unlock iPhone

Mar 28, 2016

The Justice Department has asked a federal court to vacate its order that Apple write software to help the FBI access data in the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone. The department tells the court in a filing that it has found a way to access data in the locked phone.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Department of Justice has told a federal court it no longer needs Apple's help to break into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The department is withdrawing its lawsuit against the company which had refused to write software to help officials retrieve data from the phone.

Joining me now to talk about this is NPR's Laura Sydell. And Laura, the Justice Department said the only way it could get into the phone was with Apple's help. What happened here?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: That is exactly what they said. And they publicized it widely because the - Apple and the DOJ had a big fight over it. And when they did, people started to come forward and say, you know what? We can help you break through. And they did. And apparently somebody successfully helped the Justice Department break into the phone.

MCEVERS: Who was it that helped?

SYDELL: They will not say.

MCEVERS: OK.

SYDELL: They are keeping it a secret.

MCEVERS: OK.

SYDELL: I will say that the phone they broke into was an iPhone 5c, and it was running iOS 9.

MCEVERS: It's important that we know about that level of detail. I mean, is it important that is is a 5c model?

SYDELL: I would say it's important in the sense that one of the things Apple's said in resisting the Justice Department was that if you build something - if we build software that breaks into our own phone, it will make all the other phones less secure because once it exists in the world, hackers will know it's there. They will try and find whatever that key is, whatever that software is. So arguable now (laughter) if you have a 5c model and it's running iOS 9, there is a chance that it is less secure.

MCEVERS: What's the larger story here? I mean, does this mean that the Department of Justice is going to try to get into other phones?

SYDELL: The Department of Justice, which had a call this afternoon and spoke with reporters, pretty much said we're only talking about this phone right now. They refused to say that this would have anything more to do with other phones. They would say that they generally work with state and law enforcement officials around the country and that they generally share information with them. So one could infer that perhaps they will help in other cases.

MCEVERS: Does this case set an legal precedents?

SYDELL: It doesn't because the case didn't really even go to court. You know, initially, Apple was ordered by a local magistrate to help the Justice Department break into this phone. And Apple refused, and they appealed. And right before - really, literally the day before they were supposed to go into court on the appeal, the Justice Department pulled back and said, wait a minute; somebody came along to help us. So we think that, you know, maybe that will happen. So it didn't set a legal precedent.

There is a case in New York, in Brooklyn, where a magistrate - a federal magistrate found in Apple's favor and said they didn't have to help the Justice Department. That case, though, is being appealed by the government. So there's a lot in play in terms of legal precedent right now.

MCEVERS: What do we know about what they found on the phone in this case - in the San Bernardino case?

SYDELL: Once again, they are not saying. All they are saying is that they are going to do everything they can, use all their investigative tools to get at what is in the phone. So we still don't know if there's even anything on the phone that's going to help know if there were further attacks planned or who they were communicating with. And they have not said if they will ever tell us that.

MCEVERS: That is NPR's Laura Sydell on the decision by the Department of Justice that it no longer needs Apple's help to break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Thanks so much, Laura.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.