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Without Apple’s Help, Feds Unlock Terrorist’s IPhone

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) - The FBI has unlocked the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook and asked a federal judge to vacate its court case against Apple.

"The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook's iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc. mandated by court's order compelling Apple Inc. to assist agents in search dated Feb. 16, 2016," a two-page status report filed today says.

In a statement, Apple said that the FBI's demand was "wrong" and that building a so-called backdoor into the phone would have "set a dangerous precedent."

"As a result of the government's dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought," Apple said. "We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated."

The tech giant then signaled its intention to move forward with stronger encryption for its products.

"Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy," the company stated. "Sacrificing one for the other only puts people and countries at greater risk. This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy. Apple remains committed to participating in that discussion."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker confirmed that the government had unlocked the device "without compromising any information on the phone."

"We sought an order compelling Apple to help unlock the phone to fulfill a solemn commitment to the victims of the San Bernardino shooting - that we will not rest until we have fully pursued every investigative lead related to the vicious attack," Decker said. "Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack. The San Bernardino victims deserve nothing less."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sherri Pym had postponed last Tuesday's highly anticipated face-off between the FBI and Apple the day before the hearing after the government said it may be able to unlock one of the San Bernardino terrorist's iPhone without Apple's help.

Last month, Pym ordered Apple to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to FBI technicians working on Syed Farook's iPhone 5C.

Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and injured 22 others after opening fire at a holiday luncheon at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 2.

The government said last week that it was testing a method to unlock the phone without the Apple's assistance after "an outside party" showed investigators another method.

A little over a month ago the government said there was "no question" that it was necessary for Apple to unlock the phone and insisted that there were no alternatives.

"Apple's assistance is necessary because without the access to Apple's software code and ability to cryptographically sign code for the subject device that only Apple has, the FBI cannot attempt to determine the passcode without fear of permanent loss of access to the data or excessive time delay," the government said in a Feb. 19 court filing.

Neither Apple nor FBI technicians had been able to identify any other method for gaining access to the phone and a court order was the only "feasible" way it could gain access, the government maintained.

FBI Los Angeles' official David Bowdich said the agency could not comment on what investigators had found on the phone and refused to identify the third party that helped unlock the phone.

"While we continue to explore the contents of the iPhone and other evidence, these questions may not be fully resolved, but I am satisfied that we have access to more answers than we did before and that the investigative process is moving forward," Bowdich said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said that the FBI is currently reviewing the information on Farook's iPhone "consistent with standard investigatory procedures."

"It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails," Newman said.

Newman suggested that while the government would end its legal battle with Apple, the fight with tech companies over encryption was far from over.

"We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors," Newman said.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alex Abdo, who filed a brief in support of Apple said that the case was "never about just one phone" and called the court action an "unprecedented power-grab by the government that was a threat to everyone's security and privacy."

"Unfortunately, this news appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight over whether the FBI can force Apple to undermine the security of its own products. We would all be more secure if the government ended this reckless effort," Abdo said.

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