Joel Rubin , James Queally and Paresh Dave
March 28, 2016

Federal officials on Monday dropped their legal fight against Apple after unlocking the iPhone used by an assailant in last year’s San Bernardino terror attack, leaving unsettled a vexing debate over privacy and security amid rapid advances in technology.

The move comes a week after Justice Department officials put a sudden hold on their demands that Apple assist the FBI with an announcement that an outside group had offered a way to hack into the iPhone.

Aided by the unnamed group, FBI technology experts had been at work since, testing the technique to confirm it could open the iPhone without jeopardizing its contents.

The breakthrough came over the weekend, when the information stored on the phone was extracted, said a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He declined to say anything about the contents of the phone, other than that FBI agents were reviewing the material.

The official also remained tight-lipped about the method that was used to beat the iPhone’s security barriers, as well as the identity of the group that delivered it to FBI agents. Any speculation about the effect of the breakthrough on other cases involving locked phones would be premature, he said.

The move appeared to end a historic legal showdown that pitted the demands of law enforcement investigating crimes against the rights of companies to protect their customers’ privacy.

But it also raises new questions for both sides as well as the tech industry as a whole given that the government was able to get past Apple’s daunting encryption through some type of hack.

“Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone,” U.S. Atty. Eileen Decker said in a statement after prosecutors asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym to vacate an order compelling Apple’s cooperation.

Apple struck a defiant tone Monday evening, saying in a statement that the “backdoor” into its phones sought by prosecutors “would set a dangerous precedent…. This case should never have been brought.”

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