Yesterday, according to a news report, the United States Department of Justice said that an outside entity has demonstrated a method of breaking into the iPhone that has been at the center of the encryption controversy that has unfolded over the course of the past month. After Apple refused a government request to build “back-door” software to get around the encryption of the iPhone of deceased terror suspect Syed Rizwan Farook, the Justice Department and the FBI indicated that they would take the matter to court and ask a judge to force the device manufacturer to capitulate. Now the government says that that may not be necessary, and a judge has indefinitely postponed a court hearing that was set for today. The decrypting technology was demonstrated to the FBI on Sunday, and according to a government memorandum, “testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s phone.” The government has indicated that it will file a status report by 5 April.
As the rhetoric heated up in this fight, Apple seemed to relish the role of staunch defender of consumer privacy in the face of any and all challenges. Now it appears quite possible—even likely—that the technology giant will not get its day in court and the whole issue will become moot. We say “likely” because it seems reasonable that if the third-party method were not very convincing, the government would not have risked disclosing it to the public at this stage. If the method does indeed work, it will be bad for Apple in two ways. First, the company will be denied its chance to win in court and thereby enshrine its privacy principles as the law of the land. Second, the fact that an outside party could hack the iPhone would send the message that Apple’s technology is simply not as effective in safeguarding user privacy as it was advertised to be. On the other hand, in terms of Apple’s branding and customer loyalty, having the iPhone broken into by a third party is at least better than going to court, losing, and being forced to compromise its principles by unlocking the phone itself.