FBI Breaks Into San Bernardino iPhone With Mystery Method, Shutting Down Court Case

For the time being, Apple no longer has to defend its position in court refusing to assist the FBI with breaking into the iPhone 5c model that belonged to one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino shooting. That's because the Justice Department asked that the case be dropped today, saying it was able to break into the iPhone and retrieve the data it was after without Apple's assistance.

The filing derails what would have been an historic ruling over whether or not the U.S. government can force companies like Apple to defeat their own security measures in certain situations. Apple chose to fight an initial court order to assist the FBI do exactly that, arguing that building what it considers to be a backdoor would compromise the security of hundreds of millions of iPhones.

Opened iPhone

"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," U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said in a statement. "Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack."

For weeks the FBI insisted  that only Apple had the means to break into the dead shooter's iPhone 5c, which was locked with a passcode. Then just before the much anticipated hearing, the FBI asked for a delay, saying it may have found a way to break into the iPhone with the assistance of a third-party.

Apple FBI Case Court Document

Today's filing means it took the FBI a week to test the mystery method, which some surmised involved de-soldering the NAND flash memory chip from the iPhone and making backup copies. In theory, that would allow the FBI to guess the passcode using a brute-force method without fear of the data being permanently wiped after 10 failed guesses.

Though the government is dropping its case against Apple, the legal matter remains unresolved and could come up again at some other point.

"It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails," DoJ spokesperson Melanie Newman said in a statement. "We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors."

In other words, companies like Apple and Google shouldn't get too comfortable with the fact that a legal precedent favoring the government's stance wasn't set. The government's opinion on consumer encryption is clear—it feels there should always be a backdoor for law enforcement.