Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has placed an added emphasis on public-private partnerships to improve security and assist with law enforcement. A recent skirmish between Apple and the FBI, however, has challenged the way private-sector companies interact with government agencies, promoting a strange mash-up of opposition, cooperation, and even a healthy dose of competition.
On Monday, the Justice Department announced that it had successfully accessed data from the locked iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 people last year in a mass shooting. With this new development, the department's legal battle with Apple will be dropped.
After sparring with Apple for weeks, the Department of Justice has apparently found a third party that has helped it decode the phone. It may have been an Israeli company called Cellebrite, according to Quartz.
The forensics technology company was identified by Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahrnoth as Cellebrite, which has offices in Israel and New Jersey. Both Cellebrite and the Department of Justice refused to comment when Quartz inquired about the validity of Yedioth Ahrnoth's claims.
According to Quartz, the company makes a device called the UFED Touch that claims to provide “the widest support for extraction and decoding” for Apple devices.
Regardless of which company assisted the government to open the phone, the incident opens a new dialogue about how private companies aid the government in security and law enforcement.
In the true spirit of private enterprise, where one company declines to deliver, another enters the market.
“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,” Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman told the New York Times. “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.”
Consider that Google's Eric Schmidt was signed on by the Pentagon earlier this month to head the new Defense Innovation Advisory Board.
According to Wired, Secretary of Defence Ash Carter created the board in an effort to make the Pentagon run more like a Silicon Valley tech company, advising it on topics such as rapid prototyping, iterative product development, business analytics, mobile apps, and the cloud.
As Inc. columnist Eric Mack points out, as chairman of Alphabet (Google's parent company), Schmidt's involvement with the Pentagon highlights the complex — if not contradictory — relationship that Google has with the government.
In the San Bernardino iPhone debate, Google took the side of Apple, claiming that forcing Apple to hack the phone could compromise individual privacy and security in the future. Contrast that with its cooperation with the Pentagon.
Apple similarly has a history of cooperating with the government.
Prior to receiving third-party help, the Justice Department used Apple's history to criticize the company, calling its position "inconsistent at best," reports CNN, citing 70 instances where Apple has helped them retrieve information from iPhones in accordance with the All Writs Act of 1789.
Apple countered that those past cases required only information the company already had. With the added security features of their newer operating systems, Apple said it would have had to create new software to break into the San Bernardino shooter's phone, compromising security for all of its customers.
"From the beginning, we objected to the FBI's demand that Apple build a backdoor into the iPhone because we believed it was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent," Apple said in a statement following Monday's events.
"We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along, and we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated."