Apple CEO Tim Cook has said the company is committed to Ireland

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent

The announcement late last night that the FBI is dropping its court case against Apple, aimed at forcing the computer giant to program a back door into a terrorists iPhone, is a victory of sorts.

But the genie is out of the bottle on this issue, and won’t be going back in.

It all began with the shooting dead in San Bernadino in the US last year of 14 people by terrorist Rizwan Farook and his wife.

The FBI wanted to access Farook’s iPhone 5C, in order to try to establish whether they were acting alone or not.

But it was password protected, and depending on the handset’s settings, if a PIN is incorrectly entered too many times on an iPhone, it can resulted in all the data being erased.

So the FBI went to court, claimed it had tried everything it could to break into the phone itself but had failed.

It sought and received an order compelling Apple to assist it by designing software that would in effect open a back door into the phone.

Apple was of course outraged by this – it is after all constantly trying to make its devices more secure, not less.

PR OFFENSIVE

The company began a high profile PR offensive, led by chief executive Tim Cook, who described the request as unprecedented, and likened it to creating a cancer.

Apple’s actions also received the backing of a number of other large tech companies, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

The US government and Apple were due to meet in court to thrash the issue out last week

But the previous day, the FBI called for a postponement, saying it was talking to a third party about a possible alternative method of accessing the data

And last night came the news that the US government was dropping the case, as that alternative had proven successful.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain who helped them or how, because the issue is now classified.

But it has been reported that it could be an Israeli software company.

It all seems like a satisfactory result for Apple, which was quick to claim last night that the court action should never have been taken in the first place.

But it is a pyrrhic victory for Apple, and it is very unlikely that this is the last we’ll hear about the issue.

OTHER CASES

For starters, there are several other cases pending where law enforcement or security agencies in the US want to get access to iPhones or iPads.

They may not be as high profile as the San Bernadino case, which appears to have been deliberately chosen by the FBI as a good test example.

But nonetheless, there are other cases coming before the courts where the same request could be made if the workaround that the FBI has just found isn’t applicable or doesn’t work.

The second issue is that Apple is continuously trying to improve security on its devices, where users increasingly store financial, medical, commercial, photos, videos and other data.

And so it certainly isn’t good for the company’s products to be seen to be vulnerable.

That means that if there is a vulnerability, Apple will be working overtime to try to find and fix it – and will most likely ask the FBI for the details (which it is unlikely to give).

As a result, the backdoor the FBI has found will probably not remain open for long, and as a result its officers will be back to square one.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

Finally, law enforcement agencies are not going to stop needing to be able to access devices like these as part of their investigations any time soon.

In fact, the need is growing all the time.

Experts say the terrorists and criminals are increasingly planning and executing their activities using simple, easily accessible and cheap encryption tools.

That means law enforcement agencies will be constantly on the back foot unless they can find ways of accessing devices.

Their argument is simple – if you don’t have anything to hide, then you don’t have anything to worry about.

But for privacy campaigners, that is simply not a strong enough argument for trampling all over ordinary law abiding citizens fundamental rights to privacy.

And for tech companies, whose lifeblood is increasingly the data of its users, the idea is anathema also.

It’s a struggle which is far from over.

Comments welcome via Twitter, to @willgoodbody