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FBI Puts Standoff With Apple On Hold To Test New iPhone Hack

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's turn to the dramatic development in the case of the locked iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. The government has put its case on hold. Up until the 11th hour, prosecutors claimed they needed Apple to help them get into the phone. Now, apparently, that’s no longer true, and a hearing that had been set for today was cancelled. It may seem like a mutually agreeable conclusion, but this standoff exposed a deep conflict over privacy and security that is by no means over.

Here to discuss this is NPR's Aarti Shahani, and Aarti, help us understand this. Prosecutors say they can't get into the phone without Apple's help now.

AARTI SHAHANI, HOST:

Yeah. It's actually a point many experts in cryptography had been making. As secure as the iPhone may be, it's not foolproof. Apple's working to make it so, but they're not there yet. Suddenly, this past Sunday, the government claims some outside party came by and demonstrated a concrete way to get in. So Apple isn't the only one with kings to the kingdom.

And I'd note - if this method works, it could mean the FBI has a way to break into every iPhone running on the specific operating system, iOS 9, or even others, which makes this kind of mixed news for Apple. It doesn't have to write software to bypass its own security, as the federal court had ordered, but its hardware isn't so strong after all.

CORNISH: Who is this mysterious outside party?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Law enforcement officials say it is not the national security agency which many were also speculating. They say this case triggered an outpouring around the entire world with all sorts of security experts offering help.

So it could be a private company and/or a foreign one. And they are cautiously optimistic - that's their exact words - that while they haven't cracked open the iPhone phone yet, they'll be able to. And this is a total 180 from their position in their prior briefs.

CORNISH: So I said at the top that this case is sort of on hold. I mean, this larger fight isn't over, correct?

SHAHANI: No, no, not in the least. I mean, I think this is - you know, this fight about the iPhone, how it's unfolded over the last few weeks - it signals two things - one, the cyber arms race, the cat-and-mouse game to break encryption, the code used to scramble data and make it illegible - it's on not just for the NSA, not just for the U.S., you know, Russia, China.

The FBI has come under a lot of criticism, like, hey, instead of complaining about Apple, why don't you guys learn how to hack phones for yourself? Now, that could sound unsettling to some. Suddenly, police - cops working on garden-variety crimes - they can have spy powers like intelligent agencies, like nation-state actors do, but that is definitely a takeaway.

CORNISH: OK, you said there are two lessons. What's number two?

SHAHANI: You know, it's more a set of questions. Who gets to decide how much encryption is good? Do we let Apple, the biggest company on Earth, decide, or do police get to call the shots? Or will Congress actually weigh in and manage to pass a law? And if lawmakers do that, will they talk to other countries to figure out some common rules? The FBI chose a test case that looked really compelling - not a burglar, not a tax evader - a man who, with his wife, killed 14 people.

CORNISH: And yet, the backlash against the FBI was loud, right? And critics were essentially arguing that they were trying to make some sort of power grab.

SHAHANI: That's right, and I think it's because people have iPhones, so they feel a connection to this debate. It's not totally theoretical. You know, the iPhone is one of the very first products to bring strong encryption to consumers around the world. Plenty of other tech companies are moving in that direction, and you know, we're learning probably the iPhone isn't perfect. But again, that is the corporate goal.

You know, Apple CEO, Tim Cook - he made a point yesterday of saying that that's the point of his product during his launch. So we have to figure out if that actually makes us safer because now my phone and my Gmail and my WhatsApp are so strong no criminal can break in or if it makes us weaker because criminals and terrorists can go dark, so to speak.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Aarti, thank you.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.