Apple vs. the FBI: Winning and Losing

Drawing of an Apple with a Worm

The FBI, with the help of a third party, has managed to gain access to Syed Farook’s iPhone. In a court filing Monday, the FBI stated that they did not require Apple’s help any longer.

Apple, on the other hand, now has a need to know what vulnerability was exploited to access the phone. Whether the FBI will provide that information is questionable. From a purely legal standpoint, it seems there is no obligation for it to disclose that to Apple:

Attorneys for Apple are researching legal tactics to compel the government to turn over the specifics, but the company had no update on its progress Tuesday.

The FBI could argue that the most crucial information is part of a nondisclosure agreement, solely in the hands of the outside party that assisted the agency, or cannot be released until the investigation is complete.

Many experts agree that the government faces no obvious legal obligation to provide information to Apple. But authorities, like professional security researchers, have recognized that a world in which computers are crucial in commerce and communications shouldn’t be riddled with technical security flaws.

So, had Apple decided not to fight the FBI’s writ, it would likely have full control (IP ownership and physical custody) over a handset-specific version of IOS that only bypassed the feature limiting access attempts and was only provided pursuant to a legal writ. Now, the FBI has access (through a third party) to what’s reputed to be the same capability, but Apple does not. It appears that there may be no way to compel the FBI to share that information with Apple.

So the question is: did Apple win or lose in this case? More importantly, did Apple’s customers win or lose?

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