Apple’s fight with the Justice Department over unlocking some of Apple’s well-encrypted iPhones has continued with a new skirmish. The department is now trying to compel Apple’s assistance in unlocking a phone linked to a methamphetamine ring in Brooklyn. Previously, a judge in Brooklyn sided with Apple and said the Justice Department had overreached in trying to force the company to give it access to an encrypted iPhone used by a convicted drug dealer. The Justice Department is seeking to overturn that order.
The fight between Apple and the Justice Department erupted after the department tried to force Apple to unlock an iPhone used by one of the attackers in a mass shooting in San Bernardino in December. Syed Rizwan Farook, a gunman in the shooting that killed 14 people, subsequently died in a shootout with police attempting to apprehend him. Apple refused to help the authorities, which started a worldwide debate on whether privacy or security was more important.
The Justice Department dropped that case after it said that it had found a way to unlock the iPhone without help from Apple. Reports show that the department was contacted by an unnamed third party that offered to help them get into the phone without damaging the data on it. That method was reportedly successful, although the department did not disclose the method used to the court or to Apple. The department also has not said what data was retrieved or whether it is useful.
A lawyer for Apple said the company was disappointed but not surprised by the government’s decision to appeal in the Brooklyn case. It is suspected that the department is pushing the case not for the information, but to set a precedent for other cases in the future. Law enforcement is currently trying to get into dozens of locked iPhones nationwide. The phone used by Mr. Farook was an iPhone 5C running Apple’s iOS 9 mobile operating system. The phone in the Brooklyn case is an iPhone 5S running the iOS 7 mobile operating system.
The success of the Justice Department in unlocking the phone used by Mr. Farook has resulted in new questions about the strength of Apple’s encryption software. The Justice Department said that it had not yet shared the solution with Apple and had not decided whether to do so. Lawyers for Apple have previously said the company would want to know the procedure used to crack open the smartphone. The government can decide whether to disclose information about vulnerabilities so that manufacturers can patch them or classify the information to give themselves a backdoor into certain types of technology.