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Can Apple still claim its iPhones are secure?

Apple CEO Tim Cook (left) and FBI Director James Comey.
Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook (left) and FBI Director James Comey.

Has Tim Cook's biggest fear been realized?

For weeks, Apple's CEO said the company wouldn't comply with a court order to help the FBI crack an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino terror attack in December. Creating a backdoor, Cook argued, would open the way for any bad guys who wished to enter.

"In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," Cook wrote in his Feb. 16 letter to customers.

It is clear now, however, that the FBI doesn't need Apple. For technical assistance in accessing the phone, the agency reportedly turned to an Israeli cybersecurity company named Cellebrite. (The company and the FBI have declined to comment on those reports.) On Monday, the Department of Justice asked the judge to drop the case.

"No security is 100 percent," said David Blumberg, managing partner of venture firm Blumberg Capital in San Francisco, and an investor in security start-ups. "It's a degree of difficulty, time and expense. This shows if Apple won't crack it, somebody else will."

The FBI has declined to discuss the "technical aspects" used to access the phone's data or provide the name of the firm that helped.

While Apple skirted the government's order and can still claim that it prioritizes customer privacy above all else, the end result may be the same: A backdoor exists.

"This somewhat impugns Apple's statement that the phone could not get gotten into by somebody else," Guy Kawasaki, a former chief evangelist at Apple, told CNBC Tuesday. "You always have to bet on the hackers."

Still, Apple's substantial market share in the smartphone market is unlikely to be hurt by the case. Devices built on Google's Android operating system are the only real competitors in the market. They're known to be less secure than iPhones because, aside from Google's Nexus phones, there's not a single vendor that controls the software and hardware.

Sunny Barkats, a corporate and securities lawyer in New York, said that Apple's maniacal focus on device protection and security means that it's building to protect against breaches, not enable them. He equated its engineering to the construction of a fortress, which is designed to be unbreakable.

"Apple's mindset is absolutely the right approach," Barkats said. "And the only approach they could divulge to shareholders."