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Around the Lock

A surprising development in the legal battle between the FBI and Apple on iPhone backdoors, as a third party claims to be able to unlock the phone.

Apple and the US Justice Department were due to have their day in court this week to fight it out over Apple’s refusal to help unlock the phone used by the gunman in last year’s San Bernadino shootings. However, that hearing was postponed when the FBI said they’d been approached by an outside party who claims to be able to unlock the phone. If that’s true then the court case itself starts to look irrelevant (at least this time – the FBI will have achieved their goal, although it can only be a matter of time until the same issue arises with another phone they want to access), but the wider implications look fascinating.

Of course, we don’t have any details as to how the phone could be unlocked, or who this mysterious “outside party” is (perhaps the FBI could be talking to Mr McAfee about his theories?). The FBI say that they’re “cautiously optimistic” that their hack will work, but this latest development looks like it was as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else. All the signs were that the FBI had exhausted every other alternative, and a lot of their evidence was going to be aimed at demonstrating that Apple, and only Apple, would be able to unlock the phone. One of the FBI agents working the case was previously quoted as saying that he had been “unable to identify any other methods feasible for gaining access to the currently inaccessible data stored within the subject device”.

For their part, Apple’s legal team say they don’t know what the vulnerability could be, but they can’t rule out that it exists; we are, after all, talking about IT here, and it’s never going to be 100% bullet-proof.

The FBI now has until 5 April to report back to the court. If they’ve been unsuccessful then presumably the case will pick up again and we’ll be back to where we were just a few days ago.

However, it they have been able to break into the phone then things start to get really murky. It would mean that the US government is able to exploit a vulnerability in iOS which could (in theory at least) affect every iPhone. Most cybersecurity professionals with that kind of information would feel obliged to make a “responsible disclosure”, by passing on the details of the exploit to Apple. The dilemma faced by the FBI is that to do so would be to give up their advantage: Apple would undoubtedly move swiftly to patch the security hole as soon as they know what it is. If the FBI decide to turn “black hat” and keep the information to themselves, the public will know that the FBI is able to break into iPhones at will, and that’s not going to do wonders for the reputation of the iPhone.

Whichever way it goes, it’s unlikely that the litigation is going to stop any time soon.

Disclaimer: This article is produced for and on behalf of White & Black Limited, which is a limited liability company registered in England and Wales with registered number 06436665. It is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The contents of this article should be viewed as opinion and general guidance, and should not be treated as legal advice.

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