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Third party provides possible way out of the iPhone encryption imbroglio

Government prosecutors have now said a third party will help the FBI gain access to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. On its part Apple said it hoped the government would share the new discovery. However, if the government were to drop the case against Apple, it will be under no compulsion to share the information.

In a development that will help ease the tension between Apple Inc. and the DOJ, prosecutors have said a "third party" has presented a possible way out for accessing the data on the encrypted iPhone used one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino case.
A federal judge in Riverside, California, has agreed to the government’s proposal of postponing a hearing that was scheduled for yesterday, thus providing the FBI some time to delve into the efficacy of the newly discovered technique. The DOJ has said it will next update the court on April 5.
Until now, the government had insisted on Apple to write new software which could effectively defeat the encryption since it had no way to access the encrypted contents of Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.
Although the Justice Department had last month obtained a court order which directed Apple to code the new software, Apple fought back saying the said order amounts to an overreach by the government which effectively undermines computer security for all iPhone users.
The announcement that a third party had presented a way to hack into the phone, drew widespread scepticism from many in the tech community who had earlier said that there were other ways of accessing that data.
“From a purely technical perspective, one of the most fragile parts of the government's case is the claim that Apple's help is required to unlock the phone. Many in the technical community have been skeptical that this is true, especially given the government's considerable resources,” said Matt Blaze, a professor and computer security expert at the University of Pennsylvania.
Lawyers and former prosecutors who are supportive of Apple, said the last minute move could possibly suggest that the DOJ feared that it was on a slippery slope or at minimum, it would be forced to admit that it had not tried other alternatives to access the encrypted portion of the iPhone.
In its cryptic statement, the DOJ has now stated that even as litigation began, it was exploring alternatives to access the phone, as its only interest lay in gaining access to the information stored in the phone. It did not provide any details of the new technique or the name of the third party other than the fact that it was “cautiously optimistic” that the newly discovered method would work.
"That is why we asked the court to give us some time to explore this option," said Melanie R. Newman, a spokeswoman for the DOJ. "If this solution works, it will allow us to search the phone and continue our investigation into the terrorist attack that killed 14 people and wounded 22 people."
If the new method were to work, the legal showdown, which many had expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, is likely to come to an end.
An executive from Apple told reporters that the company wasn’t aware of the Justice Department looking for alternatives routes to break open the terrorist’s iPhone. The government had not provided any indication that it was continuing its search for other solutions. The executive said the recent move by the Justice Department is in sharp contrast to the insistence in its court filings, which said only Apple had the means to access the encrypted data in the iPhone.
As per Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the San Bernardino case was probably a "hand-chosen test case" for the government to establish its authority to access electronic information by whatever means necessary. In this context, finding a possible way out from the hearing due to a third party sounds rather "suspicious," and is probably indicative of the fact that the government may be worried about losing the case and setting a bad precedent.
However, Orin Kerr, a professor of Law at George Washington University and a former Justice Department computer crime prosecutor, interpreted the government’s move as a postponing of the fight.

"The problem is not going away, it's just been delayed for a year or two," said Kerr.
Meanwhile, Apple said if the government was successful in breaking open into its smartphone by taking advantage of a yet-to-be-discovered vulnerability, it hoped the government would share that info. However, if the government were to drop its case, it would be under no obligation to share that info with Apple.

Debashish Mukherjee

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