WASHINGTON—The Justice Department on Friday night dropped a court case trying to force Apple Inc. AAPL -0.27 % to help authorities open a locked iPhone, adding new uncertainty to the government’s standoff with the technology company over encryption.
In a one-page letter filed with a Brooklyn federal court Friday night, the government said an individual had recently come forward to offer the passcode to the long-locked phone. The filing means that in both of the high-profile cases pitting the Justice Department against Apple, the government first said it couldn’t open the phone, only to suddenly announce it had found a way into the device as the case proceeded in court.
“Yesterday evening, an individual provided the passcode to the iPhone at issue in this case,’’ prosecutors said in their terse letter to the judge. “Late last night, the government used that passcode by hand and gained access to the iPhone. Accordingly, the government no longer needs Apple’s assistance to unlock the iPhone, and withdraws its application.’’
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Apple declined to comment. Last week, Apple had asked U.S. District Judge Margo Brodie to drop the case, saying the government had failed to demonstrate that it had exhausted all other options before demanding the company’s help.
The sudden withdrawal from the case is a setback in more ways than one for the Justice Department. It leaves unchallenged a 50-page ruling by a magistrate judge concluding the government doesn’t have legal authority to force companies like Apple to help investigators open devices. It is also likely to spark further criticism from privacy advocates that government officials shouldn’t be believed when they say the only way they can open a device is with help from the manufacturer.
The case involves an iPhone 5s that was seized from suspect Jun Feng as part of a 2014 drug investigation in New York. Mr. Feng pleaded guilty last year, but both sides agreed the legal dispute surrounding the phone still needs to be resolved.
After he was arrested, Mr. Feng told agents that he didn’t remember the phone’s passcode, leading investigators eventually to seek Apple’s help. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Mr. Feng only recently learned his phone had become an issue in a high-stakes legal fight between prosecutors and Apple. Mr. Feng, who has pleaded guilty and is due to be sentenced in the coming weeks, is the one who provided the passcode to investigators, according to people familiar with the matter.
The government’s move to drop the case means there is no public legal case to fight with Apple, though a February court filing indicated there were a dozen similar such cases, most of them under seal, around the country.
The Brooklyn case became the chief point of conflict between Washington and Silicon Valley after a more high-profile fight over the phone of a San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist ended last month when investigators found a way to crack into that device without Apple’s help.
Earlier this week, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told a London security conference audience that the government paid more than $1 million for an unidentified third-party to help open the San Bernardino work phone of Syed Rizwan Farook.
Mr. Farook and his wife killed 14 people and wounded 22 in a Dec. 2 shooting rampage at a holiday gathering of county employees, before being killed later that day in a shootout with police.
After the shooting, FBI agents couldn’t unlock Mr. Farook’s phone because they didn’t know his password, and the phone has passcode security features that permanently disables the device if too many erroneous guesses are made.
In February, the Justice Department sought a court order to force Apple to write software that would open the device, but the company resisted, saying to do so would compromise the security of millions of other iPhones. Officials have said the publicity surrounding that case caused an unidentified third party to demonstrate to the FBI a previously unknown way of cracking that model of iPhone.
The end of that case, however, did little to resolve the broader fight over privacy, security and digital data. Washington and technology companies have been at odds over the issue because cellphone systems frequently deploy encryption as a default setting on devices.
—Daisuke Wakabayashi contributed to this article.