Now that the Department of Justice has withdrawn its lawsuit against Apple in the case concerning the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, it’s clear that the legal and media battles of the last month and a half have produced more questions than they’ve answered. Chief among those remaining questions is this: What was the point?
The FBI, Department of Justice, and their many, many attorneys have spent the last few weeks advancing and building supporting arguments for the theory that the San Bernardino case was a standalone, a unique case that requires unique assistance from Apple. Because the iPhone 5C used by one of the killers was protected by a passcode and would erase its data automatically if too many incorrect codes were tried, the government wanted Apple to help it unlock the phone by building and signing a compromised version of iOS to load on the device. The government has said consistently in its filings that without the help of Apple, it wouldn’t be able to unlock the phone and also that it was not trying to set a precedent with this case, only trying to get to the data on this specific device.
Apple, meanwhile, has contended from the beginning of the fight that the government is overreaching by asking the company to subvert its own security features and has resisted complying with the court order to do so. Company executives also maintain that the San Bernardino case is the beginning of what could be a long series of such requests, far from an isolated incident.
“If a court can ask us to write this software, think about what else they could ask us to write. Maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for law enforcement to turn on the camera,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said last month. “I don’t know where this stops, but I do know this isn’t what should be happening in this country.”
The government ultimately got what it wanted in this case, but it also underestimated Apple’s institutional fortitude.
The case is now out of the court’s hands, after the government on Monday said it had been successful in unlocking the iPhone without Apple’s assistance. The Department of Justice said in a filing last week that an “outside party” had come forward with a method that could retrieve the data from the device and that method has been successful.
“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance of Apple Inc.,” the government’s filing says.
Apple said in a statement that the case was a mistake all along.
“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. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought,” the statement says.
“Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk.”
So what exactly was this fight all about?
For the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the rest of the law enforcement community, the case represented an extraordinary opportunity to test the limits of its power to compel technology vendors to comply with assistance requests. The government quickly discovered what those limits are, at least when it comes to Apple. Whether other vendors have those same limits remains to be seen. But the case also became a public referendum on security and privacy, a situation that the government chose to create when it made its court filings public. That likely didn’t turn out the way the FBI expected, as tech companies and politicians lined up behind Apple.
“The fact that the FBI ultimately found an alternative solution suggests that it did not conduct full due diligence before filing the lawsuit. The entire episode underscores the need for the executive branch to use extraordinary restraint when it comes to exerting extraordinary powers,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a statement Monday.
And for Apple, a company that places enormous value on its public image and has spent the better part of a decade hardening iOS and the iPhone hardware, the case was a minefield. The company made clear in its public statements and filings that it had complied with all of its legal responsibilities to turn over the data it had in the case. But Apple also has built a reputation for security and privacy and it showed no interest in undermining that, whether publicly or privately.
The government ultimately got what it wanted in this case, but it also underestimated Apple’s institutional fortitude. That underestimation likely won’t happen a second time, whether it’s with Apple or another vendor. Future battles of this kind may not be as public or resolved as cleanly.
Image from Flickr stream of Nick Hubbard.