Last week, a major player in the social media forum world used a legal hack to alert its subscribers that it had been served a National Security Letter (NSL). NSLs are a legal tool used by federal agencies when those agencies are seeking information about an American company's customers or subscribers. Part of all such letters is a “gag order” forbidding the company from disclosing the existence of the NSL.
After a month of claiming — in court documents, sworn testimony, and public statements — that “Apple has the exclusive technical means” to access the data on the encrypted iPhone 5C used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, the FBI has now dropped the case. The agency claims it “discovered” a “new” method that allowed investigators to access that data without forcing Apple to build a backdoor into the iOS platform.
The FBI and Apple will not get their day in court. At least not yet. The hearing over whether Apple must weaken the safeguards around its own encryption at the behest of the government — scheduled for Tuesday — was postponed by the Justice Department at the last minute. The FBI is now saying what tech experts have been saying all along: There may be a way to get into the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter without forcing Apple to create a backdoor.
In the FBI vs. Apple battle over encryption, Apple's lawyers have said that the company will take this all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The big question looming over the case is: What will Apple do if it loses before that court? The answer is that the company will obey the order, but its engineers may not.
As the FBI and Apple wage battle over the rights of private citizens to protect their data and communications by using encryption, both the FBI and the White House have said the FBI has “the full support" of the president. Last week, President Obama made that support clear in a speech in Texas.