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FBI unlocks terrorist's iPhone without Apple's help

By James Lu - on 29 Mar 2016, 9:27am

FBI unlocks terrorist's iPhone without Apple's help

An iPhone 5C was used by terrorist Syed Farook

The US Department of Justice, with the help of an unnamed third party, has successfully unlocked and accessed data on an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook in the San Bernadino attacks in December 2015. The FBI said that it no longer needs Apple's assistance in unlocking the phone, and it has asked US Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to vacate her order compelling Apple to assist in the case.

Farook was one of two shooters in the December 2015 attack that left 14 people dead, and the government has been trying to force Apple to help bypass the phone's security features.

Apple had been fiercely opposed to assisting the US government in unlocking the iPhone on grounds it would have wide-reaching implications on digital security and privacy, with CEO Tim Cook writing a letter to Apple's customers explaining why Apple would not be helping the FBI. Other tech giants, including Google and Facebook supported Apple in its stance.

A key court hearing scheduled earlier this month to hear arguments from both sides in the sensitive case was abruptly cancelled after the FBI said it no longer needed Apple's help and had found an outside party to unlock the phone.

"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," US attorney Eileen Decker 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."

It is currently unclear who helped the FBI access the phone and how they managed to unlock the phone, but initial reports say that the FBI may have sought assistance from an Israeli forensics company. 

According to CNN, a law enforcement official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said that the hack used only worked on this particular phone, an iPhone 5C running a version of iOS 9 software. He would not name the "third party" that helped the FBI. And he refused to say whether the FBI will disclose this hacking method to Apple so the company can protect future phones from being hacked this way.

Source: CNN