Consumer Technology

FBI says it may not need Apple's help to unlock San Bernardino iPhone

FBI may no longer need Apple's help
FBI may no longer need Apple's help

The U.S. government may not need Apple to unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter, the FBI told a judge Monday.

A federal judge agreed to postpone a Tuesday court hearing with Apple at the FBI's request, after the FBI told the judge that a third party had "demonstrated an alternate method" for unlocking the iPhone used by the accused terrorist.

The government needs more time to test the method revealed at the weekend, which would eliminate the need for Apple to cooperate in the high-profile proceedings, according to a court filing.

Instead of Tuesday's hearing, United States Magistrate Judge Sherri Pym ordered the government to file a status update by April 5.

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"As the FBI continued to conduct its own research, and as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention on this case, others outside the U.S. government have continued to contact the U.S. government offering avenues of possible research," the filing said.

In a statement, Department of Justice spokeswoman Melanie Newman said that the DOJ was "cautiously optimistic" that the proposed method would work, but cautioned that it needed to be tested first to ensure that it didn't destroy data on the phone.

The FBI did not give details on the nature of the solution it had been offered, but tweets immediately after the FBI's statement became public referred to the possible existence of a "zero day" hack on iOS, Apple's mobile operating system.

Considered very valuable in the hacking community, "zero day" vulnerabilities in software are ones that the target is unaware of, that the hacker or hackers could use in order to launch a surprise attack.

After the FBI's legal move, John McAfee told CNBC that he was "instrumental in the FBI's change of heart."

McAfee, the eccentric founder of the McAfee anti-virus software giant, had previously publicly offered to hack the phone for the FBI. He also responded to questions on Twitter about his possible involvement in the FBI's latest move by saying, "I played a role."

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Since recovering Syed Farook's iPhone in December, the FBI has sought to unlock the smartphone as part of its investigation into the deadly terror attack. Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in an assault on a government center in San Bernardino, California, on December 2. They were both later killed in a shoot-out with police.

The FBI wants to read data on the phone to try and find out whether or not the couple had contacts with militant groups.

The government has asked Apple to create a new version of its operating system, which would circumvent a feature that erases data on an iPhone after too many incorrect passwords are entered.

But Apple has resisted requests to unlock the iPhone, citing the "catastrophic security implications" of creating a "key" to the popular phones.

Speaking after the FBI's move to vacate Tuesday's hearing, an Apple attorney said that the company had no information on what technique the government planned to use to access Farook's iPhone, according to Reuters.

The lawyer said that if the case continued, Apple would seek evidence on the potential vulnerability of the iPhone, and if the case did not continue, Apple hoped the government would share the information with it, Reuters reported.