Report: FBI testing its newfound unlocking method on other iPhones

The FBI is hoping to use its reported newfound iPhone-unlocking method to crack open other iPhones in a move that could further escalate tensions between Apple and federal law-enforcement authorities.

Bloomberg reported that the FBI worked with the Israeli firm Cellebrite to unlock an iPhone belonging to the shooter in December's shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., echoing similar reports on the topic that surfaced last week. The U.S. Justice Department earlier this week vacated a court order forcing Apple to cooperate in the investigation, saying it had successfully hacked the phone.

The move ended the standoff surrounding the San Bernardino phone, but The Wall Street Journal reported today that authorities are now testing the method "to see how many other versions of the device it could open."

The FBI hasn't disclosed any details about the method, any vulnerabilities it may have found in iOS, or what was on the phone. And it may take "many more months" to determine how and whether it will use the technique in the future.

So while the battle over the San Bernardino phone is over, the war between Apple and the government over encryption and privacy may be about to heat up. Last month a New York judge rejected a request by the U.S. government to force the company to help extract data from a locked iPhone in a similar case. And Apple is fighting similar battles against federal prosecutors in at least nine other investigations across the country.

Apple CEO Tim Cook took a public stand in the San Bernardino case in February, posting a public letter vowing to oppose the court order compelling Apple to help unlock the iPhone. "The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers," Cook wrote, adding that the order "has implications far beyond the legal case at hand."

With the two sides so firmly entrenched, the FBI could spark a high-tech game of cat and mouse if it has discovered a "master key" that could unlock many -- or perhaps even all -- iPhones in use. Apple could issue updates and continue to increase the security of iOS to address any vulnerabilities, while the FBI, Cellebrite and others try to keep pace by updating their unlocking techniques.

And one huge looming question is whether the FBI will share its method, and with whom, as the Journal notes. Giving Apple details would surely enable the company to address the flaw fairly easily. And BuzzFeed reported late Friday that the FBI has sent a letter to local law-enforcement authorities telling them it could provide "technical assistance" in investigations which involve locked iPhones. Doing so certainly increases the risk that the details about the unlocking method could be leaked, but it also could help prosecutors and investigators across the country.

For more:
- see this Wall Street Journal report
- read this Bloomberg story

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