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Apple v. FBI court case postponed: What now?

The US government requested Monday – and was granted – a postponement in the court hearing of its battle with Apple, citing a possible breakthrough in its efforts to gain access to the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone.

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Customers shop at Apple store in central Sydney, Australia, Mar. 18, 2016.

David Gray/Reuters

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On the eve of a highly anticipated hearing in the Apple v. FBI court battle, a California judge allowed the Department of Justice to postpone the case until it explores an alternative way to unlock the iPhone at the center of the dispute.

Now, many observers question the timing of this new development. Some say the FBI should have tried harder in the first place to gain access to the phone without seeking Apple’s help. Others speculate that the agency had a way in all along.

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But this case has never been about a single iPhone, many experts argue, saying instead it represents the new legal front in the raging debate over how to balance between encryption and consumer privacy.

"For me, what this shows is that the broader encryption debate has really moved on from very general proposals such as backdoor mandates to something much more targeted," says Daniel Weitzner, director of the MIT Internet Policy Engineering Initiative, "whether law enforcement has the necessary resources for investigating vigorously."

By stepping back from the case, the FBI may be admitting that law enforcement should shoulder a bigger role than tech companies, when it comes to finding ways to access the data they need, says Dr. Weitzner.

The  FBI has until April 5th to investigate the potential breakthrough in gaining access to the San Bernadino iPhone. Should they succeed, judges and magistrates would likely take note in any future cases, more likely to insist that authorities can facilitate their own access to devices, rather than forcing tech companies to assist.

“It’s just one case, and it’s only in a magistrate’s court, but it’s early cases such as this one that establish patterns, which other courts will look at,” explains Weitzner in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

This leads to the question as to whether the courts are even the correct venue for such fundamental issues to be decided. 

Recommended:Opinion4 ways US can boost cyber security

As encrypted technology creeps into into every corner of modern life, experts are debating whether the security and privacy concerns brought up in the Apple legal case should, in fact, be decided by Congress.

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In 1994, as digital and wireless communications began muscling in on older technologies, Congress responded to law enforcement agencies’ concerns over their surveillance abilities by enacting the Communications for Law Enforcement Act.

They need to do so again, laying down a legal framework governing encryption and the accessibility of digital data by law enforcement. And unless they do, says Weitzner, the FBI will likely keep up the pressure on tech companies until they get the answer they want in court – or exhaust all their options.

Both sides in this debate have legitimate concerns, and a compromise needs to be found that respects the divergent views, creating some kind of a platform, a foundation, to move forward. 

“Cooperation between technology companies and the government is necessary to find a happy medium,” writes Nelson Granados in Forbes, “through 21st century legislation that enables the justice system to use digital trails to convict criminals and terrorists for our own safety, while minimizing the chances that decryption is used to violate our privacy.”