apple, mobitel (bolja).jpg
Photograph: Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns, used under CC BY

A US judge cancelled a high-profile hearing between Apple and the FBI set for Tuesday after the FBI made the surprise announcement it may have found its own way to hack an iPhone at the center of the legal dispute.

In a motion filed late Monday in federal court, government lawyers said that the day before, an "outside party" had shown the FBI a possible method for unlocking the iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife killed 14 people in a terrorism attack December 2 in San Bernardino, California.

The government said it needed time to test the method, but that if it proved viable, "it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple" that had led it to a courtroom showdown with the world's richest company.

"We must first test this method to ensure it doesn't destroy the data on the phone, but we remain cautiously optimistic," US Department of Justice spokesperson Melanie Newman said in a statement to US media.

The court ordered Apple last month to write and install a new version of the device's operating system to bypass a security protocol that will destroy stored data after too many failed password attempts.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has refused, saying the government is overreaching. He said the "back door" they propose is "too dangerous" to create because its existence could compromise the security of every iPhone equipped with such measures.

The FBI has countered that the data possibly stored on the device was a matter of national security, and that only Apple had the ability to help them get it.

The case has set off a national debate about the limits of governments' right to access digital data and of users' right to protect it.

While US lawmakers and the public appear divided on the issue, US President Barack Obama has sided with law enforcement, calling for compromise. Tech companies and privacy advocates have taken Apple's side against it.

The iPhone 5c belonged to Syed's employer, the local county health department.

Although Apple built the device, its security architecture makes it impossible for anyone - even Apple - to open it without the password programmed by Farook, who with his wife was shot and killed by police after the workplace shooting during a holiday party.

Apple mobile operating systems starting with iOS8 have an auto-erase function that destroys data if the phone is forced. Farook's phone was running the next version of the software, iOS9.

In the dispute, the FBI had argued that the only way to access data on the phone was for Apple to write and force-install a new operating system without the security protocols.

Critics, including some in the US Congress, had publicly wondered why the FBI's technical experts couldn't find a way to break into the device themselves.

Others had suggested the FBI should ask for help from the National Security Agency (NSA), the intelligence agency that employs some of the nation's top hackers.

It was unclear who had proposed the potential solution. In court papers, the government said only that amid the controversy it had continued to conduct its own research into how to break into the device, and that others "outside the government" had been in touch offering help.

Oral arguments at the federal district court in Riverside, California, had been scheduled to take place Tuesday. The government will file a status report April 5 instead.

Related stories

Apple: Court must reverse "dangerous" FBI order

Google, WhatsApp back Apple in encryption fight with FBI

FBI opens iPhone without Apple's help

Apple, FBI headed for showdown over San Bernardino encryption

Apple and FBI to face off in court

Latest news

Key congressman has 'no evidence' of Trump contacts with Russia

The chairman of the US House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee said he is not aware of any evidence of improper contacts between Russian officials and Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Gambia's new President Barrow fires army chief

Gambia's new President Adama Barrow has sacked army chief Ousman Badjie, replacing him with a presidential military aide.

Star investor Buffett takes a bigger bite of Apple, doubling shares

Stock market guru Warren Buffett on Monday revealed that his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway doubled its share of iPhone producer Apple stocks last month.

Minister: Erdogan not welcome in Austria for referendum campaign

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should not come to Austria to campaign to Turkish citizens living there ahead of a constitutional reform referendum in his country, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Monday.

Migrant group: Britain hits 'new low' by deporting grandmother

Britain has hit a "new low" by deporting a grandmother from north-eastern England to Singapore, a migrants' rights group said on Monday.

Turkish judge remands German reporter in custody

A Turkish judge remanded German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel in custody Monday, according to newspaper Die Welt, sparking strong condemnation from the German government.

1.4 million people without water after deadly floods in Chile

More than 1.4 million people were without drinking water in the Chilean capital of Santiago on Monday following catastrophic flooding that left at least three people dead.

Serbia PM says no snap parliamentary election

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Monday that an early parliamentary election would not be held simultaneously with a presidential vote, although the state leadership had announced such a possibility.  

Trump touts 'security budget' with 10-per-cent defence spending hike

US President Donald Trump says he will present a "public security and national security budget" that hikes military spending by 54 billion dollars or about 10 per cent.

National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen fined for Roma comments

The founder of France's far-right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had a 5,000-euro (5,300-dollar) fine for inciting racial hatred and discrimination confirmed on appeal on Monday.

Croatia-Montenegro relations example for region, says minister

After meeting Croatian Ambassador Veselko Grubisic in Podgorica on Monday, Montenegrin Defence Minister Predrag Boskovic said that relations between Croatia and Montenegro were very good and could serve as an example to other countries in the region.

Over 31,000 South Sudanese flee fighting and hunger to Sudan

Fleeing escalating fighting and famine in South Sudan, over 31,000 people have arrived in neighbouring Sudan so far this year, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said Monday.

SDP urges gov't to pull statement making radical turn in human rights

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) on Monday called on the government to take a position on the Croatian foreign policy's turn in human rights, which it said was initiated by Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier, and to withdraw a Foreign Ministry statement on that sent to Brussels.

Police says photoshopped photo of Milanka Opacic motivated by hate

An investigation has proved that a photograph showing Parliament Deputy Speaker Milanka Opacic wearing a shirt with four Cyrillic letters "S" (standing for "only unity saves the Serb", a popular motto and slogan in Serbia and among Serb nationalists) is a photomontage and the police suspect that publishing and distributing the said photo has been motivated by hate and intolerance.

Finance Ministry says didn't analyse HEP's readiness for IPO

The Ministry of Finance on Monday announced that it had not analysed the justification or the readiness of power provider Hrvatska Elektroprivreda (HEP) for an initial public offering with regard to a possible acquisition of Hungarian energy company MOL's stake in Croatia's INA.

Berlin confirms murder of German hostage in the Philippines

Berlin confirmed on Monday the murder of a German hostage by the militant Islamist group Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines with Chancellor Angela Merkel condemning the killing as "barbaric" and "abominable".

Syrian refugees arrive in Italy with help from Christian groups

A group of 50 Syrian refugees, more than half of them children, landed in Italy early Monday, entering the country on humanitarian visas obtained with the help of a lay Catholic NGO, Protestant organizations and the Italian government.

Macedonian opposition claims right to assume government

Macedonia's opposition Social Democratic (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev on Monday said that he expects to take over as prime minister because he has managed to build a majority in parliament.