Just when you thought the federal government couldn't spy on you any more, you find out it can. That's becoming uncomfortably clear as the Justice Department abruptly ends its legal battle against Apple over a dead terrorist's encrypted iPhone.
Briefly, the FBI couldn't get past Apple's impossible-to-crack encryption, which scrambles your personal information behind a password. The feds had been trying to force Apple to write software so they wouldn't wipe out the iPhone contents by guessing too many wrong passwords.
Note: Hear Kim Komando's opinion on who's right and who's wrong in Apple vs. FBI (scroll down to 3/3/16 free podcast.)
Now, it turns out, the government is able to get past Apple's encryption. Apple CEO Tim Cook says he'll demand to know that happened. But there's a much bigger story here: How did the feds do it?
It's likely the feds are working with an international company, possibly Cellebrite in Israel, and using a method called NAND mirroring that FBI chief James Comey recently mentioned at congressional hearings about the case.
Essentially, they can disassemble the NAND chip and copy its flash memory as many times as they want. This way, they can guess up to 10 wrong passwords on each chip without wiping out the contents of the killed terrorist's iPhone. To prevent wiping out its contents, which would happen after several incorrect guesses, they continue guessing on the next NAND chip.
There are other methods the federal government could be using. One is that they may have discovered a flaw in the iPhone's encryption. If so, Apple may be able to take legal action to find out what that flaw is.
Until then, it seems that the government has figured out a way to break past the most secure method used to protect your mobile devices. In other words, when it comes to spying on you, the government now has the upper hand.
Note: There is some encouraging news here. The iPhone in question is a 5c. Apple's newer phones, including 6s, use Secure Enclave. It's highly unlikely the government could use NAND mirroring or other well-known techniques to break past Apple's encryption on those phones.
Keep reading Happening Now for updates on the FBI's ongoing efforts to break through encrypted devices.