Justice Department to drop 'FBI vs. Apple' case, because they've unlocked the iPhone

Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook died on Dec. 2, 2015, in a gun battle with authorities several hours after their assault on a gathering of Farook’s colleagues in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead.

The #FBIvsApple legal case may be over, but the fight over security, privacy, and the right to live free of surveillance has just begun. The Justice Department is expected to drop its legal action against Apple, possibly as soon as today, because an 'outside method' to bypass security on the San Bernardino gunman's iPhone has proven successful, a federal law enforcement official said Monday.

“As the government noted in its filing today, the FBI has now successfully retrieved the data stored on the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone and therefore no longer requires the assistance from Apple required by this Court Order,” said DOJ spokeswoman Melanie Newman in today's filing.

“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” the filing continues. “We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors.”

Did the government obtain anything useful, after all that fuss over a single phone that many security experts said likely wasn't the smoking gun the FBI's case suggested?

We don't know yet.

“It is unclear what useful data, if any, was found on Mr. Farook’s device,” reports the New York Times.

The government’s decision ends an immediate legal battle with Apple that had grown increasingly contentious because the giant technology company had refused to help authorities, citing privacy issues. Yet law enforcement’s ability to unlock an iPhone through an alternative method raises new questions, including about the strength of Apple’s security on its devices.

The development also creates potential for new conflicts between the government and Apple, as how the government broke into the phone remains unknown. Lawyers for Apple have previously said that the company would want to know the method used to crack open the device.

Apple and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

From USA Today's early report, which quoted an unnamed federal official familiar with the case:

The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said the method brought to the FBI earlier this month by an unidentified entity allows investigators to crack the security function without erasing contents of the iPhone used by Syed Farook, who with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, carried out the December mass shooting that left 14 dead.

Monday's withdrawal would culminate six weeks of building tensions.

The foes were poised to exchange legal body blows in a court room in Riverside, Calif., last week before the Justice Department belatedly asked for — and was granted — a postponement.