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Apple could learn how the feds unlocked an iPhone

A case in Brooklyn may determine if the FBI has to disclose how it unlocked the iPhone tied to the San Bernardino terror attack.

The FBI is keeping mum about how it hacked an iPhone.
James Martin/CNET

Apple wants to know how the FBI decrypted an encrypted iPhone. But will the feds be forced to talk?

On Monday, the US Department of Justice dropped its demand that Apple help it unlock an iPhone 5C used by Syed Farook in December's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. That's because the FBI succeeded in unlocking the phone with the help of an unknown third party.

The government isn't saying how, but that doesn't mean the method will remain secret.

Apple is in the middle of a separate case in Brooklyn, New York, in which the Justice Department wants the company to unlock an iPhone used by an alleged drug dealer. So far, Apple has resisted. If the government continues to pursue the case, both sides would have to exchange information and evidence. That's when Apple could demand that the DOJ explain how it hacked Farook's iPhone, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The FBI's actions have left Apple in a vulnerable position. The method used by the government to crack the iPhone could end up in the hands of hackers or criminals, putting all iPhones at risk. Without knowing how the government unlocked the phone, Apple also faces the challenge of figuring out how to better secure its top-selling product to prevent future decryption attempts.

One question is whether the method used to unlock Farook's iPhone 5C would work on the iPhone in the Brooklyn case. If it does, the government doesn't have a reason to pursue the case, and Apple would be left in the dark. The DOJ said it would tell a US District Court judge by April 11 whether it would "modify" its request for Apple's help in unlocking the phone, Reuters noted.

Ultimately, the issue of whether the government has the right to seek personal data from an encrypted device may be decided by Congress. That's a solution proposed by Apple CEO Tim Cook, who believes Congress needs to pass legislation that make sense for both tech companies and law enforcement.