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Justice Department Asks To Vacate Hearing With Apple Over Locked iPhone


A big surprise today in the case of Apple v. FBI. The government has asked a federal court in California to vacate a hearing tomorrow where experts from both sides had been expected to discuss how Apple could help the investigators unlock a phone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. We're joined now by NPR tech reporter, Alina Selyukh to update us on this breaking news. And first, Alina, does this mean the case is over? What's the status?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It definitely does not mean the case is over. What the government was asking for is a delay. We're now hearing that the judge has granted the delay, so basically the hearing that was supposed to happen tomorrow will not happen for a little while. The big news is that the government is testing a brand-new method of getting inside the iPhone in question that does not involve Apple. And we don't know what that testing method is. They are not telling us what that is. But what the Justice Department is saying is that they never gave up looking for an option that did not involve Apple. And now a third party, someone outside from the government, has shown them a method that they now want to test to see if it's viable.

CORNISH: And we'll get into more detail there, but, first, you know, FBI Director James Comey has been saying that he'd - he was confident that the government had tried all the options, right? And that they thought that involving Apple was the only way.

SELYUKH: That is sort of what he was saying. He got pressed in a congressional hearing on some of the potential other methods. A bit of a specific - he was saying, I'm the director of the FBI. I don't really get into the nitty-gritty, but I have high confidence that my people did. And they did arrive at the decision that involving Apple was the only way to go. What they're saying now is that this worldwide attention to the case has kind of brought a lot of people out of the woodwork. People have started sending them suggestions and over the weekend they had somebody come in and show them a new way. And they really want to try it.

CORNISH: Remind us about - like this - I'm sorry - help us understand this new method and remind us what the original method was that the government was calling for.

SELYUKH: Right, so for context, the original challenge here was that the iPhone is protected by a passcode and the stuff inside of it is encrypted. So the only way to read the content of it, you have to have a passcode. The FBI can crack the passcode, but in order to get to that point, they have to have Apple lift some of the security features that prevent them from even attempting that. And doing that means that Apple needs to write a new kind of software. And the company says that software would effectively amount to a master key that would really jeopardize all of the iPhones out there.

CORNISH: Right, going as far as to describe it as a cancer.

SELYUKH: That is what CEO Tim Cook said, yes.

CORNISH: Now, do you have any idea of what this new method that the FBI would use would look like - or even - you mention it's an outside party suggesting it?

SELYUKH: Right, the government is not giving us any hints as to who they're working with or what this new method entails. For the past few weeks, we have heard from various security researchers suggesting different ways. There's a way to shave off part of the chip that's inside or there's sort of cloning of a memory card. We don't know which one they're testing, but we do know they want about two weeks before they produce the report. And one of the experts I spoke with suggested that that might mean it's not a tremendously new kind of idea.

CORNISH: So in the meantime this delay is just so that they can try out this method.

SELYUKH: That's exactly right.

CORNISH: That's NPR tech reporter Alina Selyukh. Thanks so much.

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

Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she covers retail, low-wage work, big brands and other aspects of the consumer economy. Her work has been recognized by the Gracie Awards, the National Headliner Award and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.