The Department of Justice has brought an abrupt end to the encryption fight it had been waging with Apple Inc. (AAPL) over an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook. In a two-page filing Monday, the government said it had gained access to the phone's data and no longer required Apple's assistance:

"Applicant United States of America, by and through its counsel of record, the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, hereby files this status report called for by the Court's order issued on March 21, 2016. (CR 199.)

"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 February 16, 2016.

"Accordingly, the government hereby requests that the Order Compelling Apple Inc. to Assist Agents in Search dated February 16, 2016 be vacated."

The government had wanted to force Apple to provide assistance to the FBI in unlocking the phone, which was used but not owned by one of the shooters who killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December (the owner consented to have the phone searched). Due to security features Apple had developed – largely in response to Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations about government snooping – the phone could potentially have erased all of its data if officials had entered the passcode incorrectly ten times. 

Apple refused to help the FBI, arguing that doing so would in effect create a "back door" to its products that could be exploited by any number of government or criminal actors. In an interview, CEO Tim Cook called the software the FBI was requesting "the equivalent of cancer."  

On March 21, the DOJ said in a filing that the FBI may have found another way to bypass the phone's security measures, as an unnamed third party had come forward offering assistance. If Monday's filing is to be believed, that party, which remains unidentified, was successful. 

In response to the news that the DOJ would drop its dispute with Apple, the company released the following statement to the media:

"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."

Unresolved Questions

The outcome leaves a number of difficult questions brought up by the case unanswered. The appropriate role of the 18th-century All Writs Act, which the government had used to try to compel Apple to help it unlock the phone, is still unsettled. The larger debate over the balance that government and business should strike between security and privacy concerns is also unresolved. (See also, Apple, FBI Escalate Face-Off in Full Public View.)

That debate had widened to the point that, by late February, a host of public luminaries had come out on either Apple's side or the FBI's, with President Obama decrying the urge to create "black boxes" that no warrant could gain access to, and Silicon Valley CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai supporting the stand taken by their Apple counterpart. The public also became involved, with 89% of respondents to a February 18-21 Pew Research Center poll expressing an opinion on the case:

From Cook's perspective, it is likely a relief not to be involved in an ongoing dispute with the U.S. government. He is no longer in danger of being declared in contempt of court and jailed over the original court order, issued on February 16, which might eventually have compelled Apple to provide the software the FBI wanted.

On the other hand, Apple's encryption has been shown to be vulnerable. The government, in short, may have created its own back door, which may worry iPhone owners and which begs the question: will Apple now create even stronger encryption, perpetuating the arms race between security forces and privacy advocates? The answer is almost certainly yes, so the issue is likely to resurface. (See also, Apple's Performance in 2016: Growth to Value.)

The Bottom Line

The FBI, according to a court filing, has found another way into the iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, presumably through the assistance of the unnamed third party it mentioned last week. It is not certain that the government has in fact been able to access the phone, but in any case it's abandoned its pursuit of Apple's assistance, which CEO Tim Cook had bitterly resisted giving. That leaves the broader debate over the balance between privacy and security in the post-Snowden, post-9/11 era unresolved. In addition, iPhone owners are likely wondering whether the government can now bypass their encryption.