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The FBI has postponed its court showdown with Apple – in which it planned to force the company to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook – to test an alternative way in.
The court case arose after Apple refused to obey a court ruling, to help the FBI bypass the auto-erase function on the iPhone 5C running iOS9, to find the passcode and access data stored on the device.
Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to create a custom firmware file to enable the FBI to bypass or disable the auto-erase function and brute force crack the phone’s passcode to access and decrypt data stored on the device.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook said in a statement that the US government had demanded Apple take an "unprecedented step” – which threatened the security of Apple’s customers.
Apple has since garnered the support of several other big US technology firms, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
According to prosecutors, "an outside party" has demonstrated a possible way of unlocking the iPhone without Apple's help.
"Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook's iPhone," a court filing said.
US Department of Justice spokeswoman Melanie Newman said in a statement that the government was "cautiously optimistic" that the method will work, reports the BBC.
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Tim Cook calls for public debate
It is unknown what the method might be or who has come forward with the offer, but commentators have speculated that it may be a security firm.
If the method is successful, the court case against Apple will no longer be necessary – but it will raise concerns that, if the FBI can find a way in, so can cyber criminals.
Commentators have voiced hopes that the FBI and the “outside party” will share their intelligence with Apple – so, if there is a vulnerability that can be exploited, Apple can fix it.
The court gave the FBI two weeks until 5 April to test out the unspecified way into the iPhone.
Tim Cook used Apple’s launch event for the iPhone SE and iPad Pro just ahead of the scheduled court hearing to comment on the case.
“We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and our privacy,” he said.
Cook said Apple never expected to be “at odds” with the US government, but said the company believed it has a responsibility to help customers protect their data and privacy.