US Government May Not Need Apple's Help After All in Encryption Case

A third party may be able to unlock a San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

ByABC News
March 22, 2016, 10:19 AM

— -- There's now another player in Apple's encryption battle with the FBI after officials said a third party has come forward and "demonstrated" a "possible method" to cracking into a locked iPhone, prompting the U.S. government to postpone a court hearing scheduled for today.

New questions have arisen about the identity of the third party, their methods for possibly cracking Apple's encryption and whether the development is a legal win, of sorts, for Apple. The company has been fighting a government order compelling Apple to help create a way for officials to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters.

"Encryption is meant to be difficult, it is meant to be scrambled," online safety expert Robert Siciliano of Intel Security told ABC News. "However, we are dealing with computer science -- and science of any kind can be reverse engineered. If it can be built by putting together various technology, it can also be taken apart and its roots exposed."

Law enforcement officials did not detail the "possible method" used by the third party or discuss whether it was an individual computer scientist or company that came forward to offer assistance.

Melanie Newman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a statement Monday the FBI has "continued in its efforts to gain access to the phone without Apple’s assistance, even during a month-long period of litigation with the company."

She said officials remain "cautiously optimistic" and plan to first test the method to make sure it does not damage the data on the iPhone at the center of the case.

Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the University of Buffalo who studies encryption and cyberlaw, told ABC News "there has been a lot of talk about how law enforcement has fallen behind and lacks technological capabilities."

"Now that a third party has emerged and says they can [unlock an iPhone], maybe that recalibrates things," he said. "It is definitely a legal win for Apple if this case goes away because some other party can go ahead and get into the phone. A lot of their argument was, ‘It isn’t fair to compel our engineers to write this code.’"

With technology continuing to evolve -- and the possibility of someone being able to crack an iPhone -- Intel Security’s Siciliano said this development could prove Apple's argument that the company always needs to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals.

"I am sure Apple knows someone is out there who is probably able to uncover a backdoor. For them, it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when," he said. "They, in turn, may create some type of technology to protect iPhones going forward. They are not going to just rest and leave it at that."

Apple has been staunch in its position that creating a backdoor for government officials would undermine the security of millions of users. CEO Tim Cook kicked off the company's iPhone SE launch event Monday discussing the encryption fight, adding the company never expected to be "at odds with our own government."

“We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government. But we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy. We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country,” Cook said.

"This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility."