WASHINGTON — Federal lawyers on Monday afternoon asked a judge to cancel a hearing scheduled for Tuesday on Apple's challenge to a court order that it help the government unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.
Hours later, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym granted the request.
The heavily anticipated hearing was slated to cover arguments briefed over the past month by Apple, the Justice Department, and a host of other parties, but was unexpectedly cancelled, as federal investigators believe they may have a way into the locked iPhone.
On the eve of the arguments — and hours after an Apple product launch event — the government told the court that "a possible method for unlocking" the phone was demonstrated to the FBI by "an outside party."
In addition to canceling the hearing, Pym stayed — or, put on hold — the order granted under the All Writs Act indefinitely, given the "present uncertainty surrounding the government’s need for Apples’s assistance."
A law enforcement official told reporters on a call Monday evening that the outside party came to the FBI on Sunday, adding that the worldwide publicity of the case prompted many outside sources to contact the FBI and present avenues of research.
The law enforcement official would say only that the party came from outside the U.S. government, and would not confirm if the party was domestic or foreign. While more testing must be performed before investigators gain access to the locked iPhone, the Justice Department remains cautiously optimistic that the new method will work.
The government is to provide an update to Judge Pym by April 5.
In a call with reporters Monday evening, Apple attorneys said that if FBI technicians are now able get into the iPhone without Apple's help, it would moot the case as the Justice Department presented it to the court. The basis for the government's argument is now gone, they said.
Throughout the Justice Department's filings, and in congressional testimony, the government maintained that Apple's assistance was crucial to recovering additional data from the iPhone. This brought an additional element of surprise to the Justice Department's announcement. Apple's lawyers noted that they were never given any indication the government was continuing its efforts to access the phone without Apple's help.
Asked whether Monday's actions constituted a victory for Apple, the company's lawyers said they still don't know how the matter will be resolved. They noted that Apple could be back in court in a few weeks, if the method fails and the government renews its efforts to force the company's hand.
Apple's attorney's emphasized that they know close to nothing about the method discovered by the outside party. Learning about the supposed vulnerability will be an urgent priority for the company, however. Apple attorneys said they will insist that the government share details about the method if the case moves forward.