The FBI just filed a motion to delay Tuesday's hearing in the San Bernardino iPhone case, claiming that an "outside party" may be able to help it break into the phone without Apple's help. The motion comes after weeks of escalation tension in the case with Apple, the FBI, and other stakeholders arguing the case in public before it reached courts. It's not clear who is helping the FBI or what the new method entails, but it may not be coming from the NSA, despite speculation that the intelligence agency has the ability up its sleeve; today's filing suggests that the help is coming from "outside the US government."
"As the FBI continued to conduct its own research, and as a result of the worldwide publicity and attention on this case, others outside the US government have continued to contact the US government offering avenues of possible research," the filing states.
"If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for assistance from Apple."
It's not clear if this is just a tactic to delay the government's effort to compel Apple to create a backdoor that would help it bypass the iPhone's defensive mechanisms; the "worldwide publicity and attention" the government cites was highlighted on stage today when Apple opened its latest keynote with righteous remarks on its fight against the FBI. But the motion implies that the FBI would drop the case if it's able to break in with this third-party assistance; "If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for assistance from Apple," the filing states.
Apple was ready to bring out its big guns on Tuesday. Eric Neuenschwander, Apple's head of product security and privacy, was scheduled to appear in court, and filed a declaration last week arguing that the FBI's request could have wide-reaching effects on security in systems used by major technology companies. And over the past month, Apple has furiously presented its case to the public, seizing many opportunities to portray the fight with the FBI as a fight over Constitutional rights.
If the court accepts the FBI's request to delay, the agency plans to file a "status report" by April 5th — so we should find out soon if the government's new mysterious iPhone hack works.
Update 8:46pm ET: The court has approved the order.
Introducing the iPhone SE