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DOJ Finds A Way To Break Into Terrorist's Locked iPhone


Closer to home, the U.S. Justice Department says it has found a way to break into the locked iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists and doesn't need Apple's help after all. That ends a legal showdown between the government and Apple - at least over this particular device. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: First a quick refresher - this confrontation burst into public view last month when a federal judge ordered Apple to help the FBI hack into the iPhone. The feds said they tried everything else and had no choice but to draft Apple. But the company pushed back hard, saying the government was asking too much. The FBI wanted Apple to write new software which would get around the phone's security features, features which have become a major selling point for Apple products. The whole thing was on its way to becoming a titanic test case - not just legally but also in the court of public opinion. And then, yesterday, the Justice Department said, let's just call the whole thing off.

ORIN KERR: Neither side really looks that great after this result.

KASTE: Orin Kerr is a Georgetown law professor and an expert on cases involving technology and privacy.

KERR: The Justice Department doesn't look very good because they said they couldn't come up with another way and then they could. And then Apple doesn't look very good because they said, you know - suggested that nobody could get into their phones and actually there was a way into their phones.

KASTE: The Justice Department says it got into the phone using a method that was suggested by an unnamed outside party. Experts assume it was a professional hacker or a security company. But the Justice Department isn't saying. It's also not saying whether the new method will work on other iPhones. Ross Schulman is with the Open Technology Institute at a Washington think-tank called New America. He says if the method works on other iPhones, it will be revealing to see whether the government decides to share its secret with Apple.

ROSS SCHULMAN: If it was really just about the one phone that they are now into and the government, as it purports to be, is very interested in improving cyber security for everybody, the right thing to do now would be to tell Apple how they got into the phone so that Apple can fix it in future versions.

KASTE: Since this started the government has fended off accusations that it had larger motivations in this case, something that Apple echoed in the written statement it released last night. The company said, quote, "from the beginning we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent." Still, law enforcement officials insist this wasn't about establishing any precedents, that it was only about getting into this one phone. And now that that's been accomplished, they're satisfied. That may be, but Orin Kerr says the difficult question of law enforcement access to encrypted technology is not going away.

KERR: It's kind of like a game that was rained out - you know, the two teams are ready to play the next time as soon as it's a sunny day.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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