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FBI Delays Apple Hearing to Try a New iPhone Hack

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 22, 2016 3:57 PM

For the last few weeks, conflict between the iPhone maker and the FBI has been so heated that even people who know nothing about encryption (that's most of us) have developed very spirited and views on the matter.

In a somewhat odd twist, it looks like the FBI just took a breather and said, "Fine, we don't need you," to Apple. It appears that an "outside party" just alerted the government to an alternative means to cracking Syed Farook's phone. This is all very disconcerting, particularly as there was a hearing for the debate to continue on scheduled for today.

The Latest

A new court filing reveals that the government recently was made aware of a possible alternative means of unlocking San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone without Apple's help. Apparently the FBI requested only two weeks to attempt the new unlocking technique. This short time frame has led a number of qualified parties to speculate that this could indicate that the FBI intends to attack the device based on a "NAND mirroring technique."

This technique had actually been floating around in the rumor-waves approximately a week before the somewhat confrontational hearing in which FBI Director James Comey sat before Congress and likened what the government was asking to "asking Apple to remove the snarling guard dog." The technique was even described as "making 10,000 copies" of the storage chip so that it could be recovered after the original device was wiped (thanks to Apple's after-10 security protocol). In fact, one wonders why the FBI didn't simply try this earlier. Could it be a desire for precedent?

For Limited Devices

Even if this technique works, it leaves some deep legal issues still on the table. Apparently the technique is effective only on Apple 5C devices and lower. So this technique hardly will be the panacea that the FBI pines for.

News of this will encourage consumers (and possibly terrorists) to upgrade their iPhones. Strangely enough, even this turned out to be a win for Apple.

What About the Legal Issues?

This technique would simply allow the FBI to access the device without having to reconcile to the American people their rights to privacy against the good of public safety. For weeks, the government had been pounding the table with The All Writs Act. It may well still do so in the future.

Wild speculation abounds as to the amount that Apple has expended in legal fees related to the San Bernardino iPhone debacle. That doesn't even take into account the costs associated with an FBI win. Few tech companies have Apple's war chest reserves -- or anything close. That's why, until recently, the wise move for many would have been to simply capitulate to any court issued order. But with the FBI's seeming two-steps-forward-one-step-back move, we wouldn't be surprised if more tech companies didn't just simply change their stance and play backup to Apple's song.

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