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The FBI has asked Apple for help with unlocking two iPhones believed to have been owned by a recent mass shooter, NBC News reported on Tuesday.
Investigators think that the two Apple devices were owned by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who carried out a shooting attack that left three people dead and eight injured at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida last month.
In a letter sent to Apple’s general counsel this week, the FBI said that it had the court’s permission to access the contents of the phones. But it added that both devices were locked and that investigators are actively “engaging in efforts to ‘guess’ the relevant passcodes.”
Further complicating matters for federal investigators is the fact that one of the iPhones was apparently damaged by gunfire. During the attack, Alshamrani — a Saudi Air Force member taking flight training in the U.S. — was killed by a sheriff’s deputy, the FBI confirmed.
Apple, for its part, said that it has already provided the FBI with all of the data in its possession and will continue to offer what assistance it can.
The ‘Going Dark’ Problem
Apple has been in a similar situation before. Back in 2016, a U.S. federal judge ordered the company to help the FBI access a locked iPhone owned by one of the shooters in the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino.
The Cupertino tech giant famously refused that order, indicating that it would create a “dangerous precedent” that could threaten the privacy and security of its users and their data.
While the FBI found an alternative way to bypass the encryption on that iPhone, authorities have continually run into problems with locked Apple devices since then. It’s been dubbed the “going dark” problem.
Based on Apple’s statement back to the FBI in this case, it appears that the company is going to continue opposing creating a backdoor into its devices.
Why This Is Significant
Apple does comply with government requests for data, but data stored locally on a locked iPhone is a different story. Even if Apple wanted to give out access to that data, it couldn’t. That’s due to the strong encryption standards baked into its devices, as well as Apple’s hands-off approach to user data.
What the FBI and other law enforcement officials are asking for, in these cases, is a backdoor that can grant access to a user’s device without their permission.
That kind of backdoor, of course, has a high potential of falling into the wrong hands. Just think of intelligence-grade hacking tools that have been stolen and used by hackers. (That isn’t even considering the privacy implications of government overreach and privacy implications.)
But this, unfortunately, is an all-or-nothing situation. And Apple is taking what it believes to be the best route here: a hard stance against backdoors, no matter the context.