FBI may have found way to unlock San Bernardino attacker's iPhone

A federal judge canceled a hearing Tuesday in the legal battle to force Apple to break into an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino attackers, after federal officials said in a court filing they may have found another way to access the device.

In a filing late Monday, federal prosecutors said "an outside party" has come forward and shown the FBI a possible method for unlocking the phone used by one of the shooters in the Dec. 2 terror attack.

In a statement, U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman said the government is "cautiously optimistic" that the possible method will work.

Newman added that the outside party demonstrated to the FBI this past weekend a possible method for unlocking the phone.

"We must first test this method to ensure that it doesn’t destroy the data on the phone, but we remain cautiously optimistic," she said. "That is why we asked the court to give us some time to explore this option."

If the method works, the government said in the filing "it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple."

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym on Monday granted the government's request to delay the hearing, which had been set for Tuesday.

Federal officials will update the court with a status report by April 5 as to whether it will proceed with the suit, a law enforcement official told Fox News.

The law enforcement official would not elaborate on who the third party is, or what the new method might entail.

Apple attorneys told reporters Monday night that the disclosure by the FBI is another interesting twist in what's been an interesting journey.

The company said that it doesn't know anything about the possible workaround that FBI says that it has found through a third party, adding that they do not want to assume that FBI "has anything" because it did not share specifics on this method with the company.

Despite this latest development, Apple's attorneys said that its position has not changed on the issue and that it stands ready to respond to the government if the case comes back, adding that the company feels strongly that it has the responsibility to protect customer data and privacy.

Apple's attorneys repeated that they do not know what the government may now be able to do given these latest developments, but added that if the government is indeed able to unlock Farook's iPhone, the case would then be moot given that Justice Department's basis for bringing this forward was that only Apple had the ability to assist DOJ in unlocking the iPhone.

Apple's attorneys added though that it would be premature to call this a legal victory for Apple given that they do not know what will come of this.

For more than a month, the government and Apple have waged a very public debate over whether breaking into one phone would jeopardize the security of all encrypted devices.

Prosecutors have argued that the phone used by Farook probably contains evidence of the Dec. 2 attack in which the county food inspector and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, slaughtered 14 at a holiday luncheon attended by many of his work colleagues. The two were killed in a police shootout hours later.

The FBI has said the couple was inspired by the Islamic State group. Investigators still are trying to piece together what happened and find out if there were collaborators.

The couple destroyed other phones they left behind and the FBI has been unable to circumvent the passcode needed to unlock the iPhone, which is owned by San Bernardino County and was given to Farook for his job.

Last month, Pym ordered Apple to create software that would disable security features on the phone, including one that erases all the information if a passcode is incorrectly entered more than 10 times. That would allow the FBI to electronically run possible combinations to open the phone without losing data.

Apple said the government was seeking "dangerous power" that exceeds the authority of the All Writs Act of 1789 it cited and violates the company's constitutional rights, harms the Apple brand and threatens the trust of its customers to protect their privacy. The 18th-century law has been used on other cases to require third parties to help law enforcement in investigations.

The company said the order is unreasonably burdensome. Once created, it would be asked to repeatedly design such software for use by authorities at home and abroad, and the technology could fall into the hands of hackers.

The government has countered that Apple could create the software for one phone, retain it during the process to protect itself, then destroy it. Apple has said that creating software is a form of speech and being forced to do so violates its First Amendment rights.

Both sides have mounted aggressive public relations campaigns to present their side and rhetoric at times has been charged.

Apple CEO Tim Cook ripped the government's "backdoor" approach, a term applied to hackers that has also been used to criticize the way the government eavesdrops on encrypted communications.

FBI Director James Comey rejected talk of seeking a "master key" and said his agency just wanted Apple to remove its "vicious guard dog" so it can pick the lock.

Law enforcement organizations have weighed in on the side of the Justice Department and called on Apple to help in the investigation. President Barack Obama has said he values privacy but criticized "fetishizing our phones above every other value" and said there had to be some way to get information from the devices.

Other technology heavyweights, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, along with civil liberties groups and privacy advocates, have supported one of the world's largest technology companies.

Victims and relatives of the San Bernardino attack have come down on both sides, with some urging Apple to help and others saying privacy concerns are paramount.

While the case gained immense attention, it wasn't the first time the government and Apple have clashed over access to iPhone data.

At the time of Pym's order, a magistrate judge in New York was weighing whether to force Apple to help the government gain access to data on the phone of a methamphetamine dealer. The phone in question, however, used an older operating system than the phone in the San Bernardino case. Apple already has a method to extract data from such phones and had done so at least 70 times for law enforcement.

The San Bernardino case raised the stakes in the fight because Apple says it was being asked to create a method to access the phone's data that does not exist.

Three weeks ago, the judge sided with Apple, saying prosecutors were stretching an old law "to produce impermissibly absurd results."

The government is appealing that order.

Fox News' Matt Dean and the Associated Press contributed to this report.