LOS ANGELES // A much-anticipated court hearing on the US government’s effort to force Apple to unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist was abruptly postponed less than 24 hours before Tuesday’s hearing.
FBI revealed it may have a way to access data from the iPhone – which was used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terror attack, Syed Rizwan Farook – without Apple’s help.
Federal prosecutors made the surprising announcement on Monday, saying “an outside party” came forward over the weekend and showed the FBI a possible method.
The FBI has been researching methods to access the data on Farook’s encrypted phone since obtaining it on December 3, the day after the attack which killed 14 people.
The government said in court papers it was requesting the hearing be postponed. Authorities need time to determine “whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data” on the phone.
If viable, “it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple”, according to the filing.
The government did not identify the third party or explain what the proposed method entailed.
Apple attorneys said it was premature to declare victory in the case because it’s possible that authorities could come back in a few weeks and insist they still need the company’s help.
The company hopes the government will tell Apple about whatever method it uses to access the phone’s encrypted files, but the attorneys said it may be up to the FBI to decide whether to share the information.
Apple has previously said in court filings that the government did not exhaust all its options, and lawmakers have criticised the FBI for not doing more to try to crack the iPhone itself before seeking Apple’s help.
Prosecutors have argued that the phone used by Farook probably contains evidence of the December 2 attack in which the county food inspector and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, slaughtered 14 people at a holiday luncheon attended by many of his work colleagues. The two were killed in a police shootout hours later.
The FBI has said the couple was inspired by ISIL. Investigators still are trying to piece together what happened and find out if there were collaborators.
The couple destroyed other phones they left behind, and the FBI has been unable to circumvent the passcode needed to unlock the iPhone, which is owned by San Bernardino county and was given to Farook for his job.
A California federal judge who was set to preside over a hearing in the contentious case on Tuesday granted the government’s request for a delay and asked that a status report be filed by April 5.
* Associated Press, with additional reporting from Agence France-Presse