U.S. Drops Apple Case After Getting Into Terrorist’s iPhone

The U.S. said it has successfully gained access to the data on the iPhone used by a man in a San Bernardino, California, terrorism attack and no longer needs Apple Inc.’s assistance, marking an end to a legal clash that was poised to redraw boundaries between personal privacy and national security in the mobile Internet age.

The Justice Department said a week ago that it was approached by an unidentified third party about a possible method to get into the shooter’s phone. In a two-paragraph court filing Monday, the government said that it “has now successfully accessed the data stored” on the iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife carried out the December attack in San Bernardino. The filing provided no details on how investigators got the data.

The Justice Department was fighting Apple in court in an unprecedented showdown when it abruptly asked last week to cancel a hearing before a magistrate judge over her order compelling the company to help investigators get into the phone.

The decision to drop the legal battle marks a legal victory for Apple. The Cupertino, California-based company has resisted being forced to write new software that would make it easier for the FBI to break into the shooter’s phone. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said such a move would pose a threat to the privacy of hundreds of millions of iPhone users around the world, arguing that a backdoor of that nature could be exploited by less reputable parties.

While Apple has emerged victorious from the legal tussle, the revelation that the FBI was able to hack the iPhone with the help of a third party tarnishes the iPhone’s purported security prowess. Government agencies are now able at least to break into handsets which don’t yet have the latest software upgrades.

“Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” Eileen Decker, the U.S. attorney in  Los Angeles, said in a statement. “We sought an order compelling Apple to help unlock the phone to fulfill a solemn commitment to the victims of the San Bernardino shooting – that we will not rest until we have fully pursued every investigative lead related to the vicious attack.”

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet and spokesman Fred Sainz didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the government’s filing.

The case is In the Matter of the Search of an Apple iPhone Seized During the Execution of a Search Warrant on a Black Lexus IS300, California License Plate 35KGD203, 16-00010, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Riverside).