Justice Department Withdraws Court Order, Ending Six-Week Encryption Fight With Apple

The DOJ says a new method suggested by a third party has succeeded in breaking into the iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook.

Justice Department Withdraws Court Order, Ending Six-Week Encryption Fight With Apple
[Photo: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns]

The Justice Department Monday withdrew a federal court order demanding that Apple help the FBI unlock the iPhone 5c of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook.


The DOJ made a surprise announcement March 21 that a third party had suggested a way for it to break into the phone without Apple’s help. It worked.

“The government has now successfully accessed the data stored on Farook’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple Inc.,” stated a motion filed with the District Court of the Central District of California Monday.

The withdrawal of the court order signed by Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym on February 16 brings to a close a tense six-week standoff that brought into sharp focus the government’s desire for a “back door” to encrypted user data, and the tech community’s unwillingness to provide one.

Apple released a statement reacting to the DOJ’s withdrawal late Monday. Here it is in its entirety:

From the beginning, we objected to the FBI’s demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent. As a result of the government’s dismissal, neither of these occurred. This case should never have been brought.

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.

Apple believes deeply that people in the United States and around the world deserve data protection, security and privacy. 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.

Some believe that while the current skirmish may be ending, the broader battle is still under way and will only seek a new venue to flare up anew.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said this in a statement late Monday: “That the government was able to gain access to the phone without Apple’s help is certainly preferable to issuing a wide-reaching court decision that would grant the government backdoor access into every American’s phone and other devices, but the fundamental question over how we, as citizens, expect our government to be able to access–or not access–our personal information still remains.”


The App Association’s Morgan Reed points out that Issa asked FBI director James Comey during a hearing March 1 if he was sure that the FBI really needed Apple’s help to crack the Farook phone. Comey’s answer was vague.

“The government today announced what we had suspected all along,” Reed said in a statement. “The drastic measures sought by the FBI to compromise the security of smartphones and online commerce were never even necessary.”

Apple has said that it has a right to know if, and how, the government breaks into the Farook phone. It remains to be seen if the government will release that information.

“The government needs to take that into account and disclose this vulnerability if it will help Apple’s users,” said Denelle Dixon-Thayer, chief legal officer at Mozilla.

“The U.S. administration has made very clear that cybersecurity is a critical issue today,” Dixon-Thayer said. “As the White House has said, disclosing vulnerabilities like these to the vendor ‘usually makes sense.’”

Related: Apple Vs. The FBI: What’s At Stake

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.