FBI Drops NY iPhone Unlock Case, Fails to get Precedent Again

The FBI dropped its New York iPhone unlocking case against Apple, although this time instead of buying a hack, someone handed over the passcode. Unconfirmed reports claim it was the suspect in the case, Jun Feng, who pleaded guilty last year to drug-related charges. That's one more case where the FBI failed to land the encryption-hacking precedent it wants.

FBI gets passcode for Jun Feng's iPhoneFBI gets passcode for Jun Feng's iPhone

Mr. Feng pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a methamphetamine distribution conspiracy last year, but didn't give law enforcement agents the passcode to the iPhone they seized from him. The FBI asked the court for an order compelling Apple to help hack into the device citing the All Writs Act from 1789. The Federal Judge hearing the case refused to grant the order, so the FBI appealed the ruling.

Apple claimed the FBI hadn't exhausted its investigative options, and now it seems that's the case because late last Friday the agency withdrew its case, telling the court,

Yesterday evening, an individual provided the passcode to the iPhone at issue in this case. Late last night, the government used that passcode by hand and gained access to the iPhone. Accordingly, the government no longer needs Apple’s assistance to unlock the iPhone, and withdraws its application.

And just like that, another let's-force-Apple-to-hack-iPhone-security case evaporated into the Ether.

The Jun Feng case parallels the FBI's Syed Farook mass shooting case in San Bernardino. In that case, FBI agents wanted Apple to help work around the iPhone lockscreen passcode to see the device's encrypted contents. The FBI won its order, but Apple asked the court to reverse the ruling saying the government didn't have the authority to force companies to circumvent their own security features, and that doing so would set a precedent where other companies would be forced to do the same.

In the end, the FBI dropped its case at the last minute saying an unnamed third party produced a hack that didn't require Apple's assistance. Ultimately, Mr. Farook's iPhone proved to be of little value because the FBI didn't find any useful information.

Both cases are part of a crusade by the FBI and Department of Justice to give law enforcement agencies backdoors into our encrypted data. The San Bernardino and New York cases didn't pan out, nor did the Boston case where the FBI was also trying to force Apple's hand in the encryption game.

That doesn't, however, mean the FBI and DOJ are giving up. The American Civil Liberties Union put together a list of more than 60 cases where Apple and Google are being targeted for help bypassing their own encryption. Considering how the cases have gone so far, however, winning the precedent they want seems easier said than done.

Withdrawing the case to hack into Mr. Feng's iPhone doesn't help the FBI and Department of Justice in their ongoing push to circumvent encryption in computers and mobile devices. In fact, it hampers their efforts because so far it seems the most effective results have come from actual police work instead of trying to force Apple to crack its own encryption.

[Thanks to the Wall Street Journal for the heads up]