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FBI: Tool Used to Unlock Shooter's iPhone Will Not Work on Newer Models

FILE - These then-new Apple iPhone 5c models were on display in at Tokyo store, Sept. 20, 2013. A 5c was at the center of Apple's battle with the FBI over efforts to break the company's proprietary auto-destruct security system.

Secret methods employed to unlock an Apple iPhone used by a shooter in last year's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, will work on only a “narrow slice” of phones, FBI Director James Comey said.

Comey said Wednesday night that the tool the FBI used to unlock the phone, provided by an unnamed third party, would not work on newer iPhone models, such as the 5s, 6 or 6s.

The FBI ended a high-profile legal battle with Apple after it acquired the technology and accessed the phone in question, but that left the larger legal issue of general iPhone encryption and privacy unresolved.

The FBI already faces the prospect of again asking for Apple’s help in cracking an iPhone connected to a case. The Justice Department has asked a New York court to force Apple to unlock an iPhone 5s involved in a drug investigation.

Prosecutors in that case will let the court know April 11 whether it will ask for Apple’s help, but in doing so the government could give the company the opportunity to force the FBI to reveal its secret technology by claiming legal discovery, a source familiar with the situation told the Reuters news agency.

If the FBI tells Apple about the encryption flaw that was exploited to gain access to the phone, “then they’re going to fix it and we’re back where we started from,” Comey told an audience at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

The iPhone in question belonged to Syed Farook who, along with his wife, killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December.