U.S. Attorney General Is Turning up the Heat on Apple

Attorney General William Barr Justice Department Credit: U.S. Department of Justice
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Apple has once again found itself embroiled in a battle with the U.S. Justice Department after the FBI asked it to unlock an iPhone used by a mass shooter at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, that killed three people last month, and in a development that should really surprise nobody, the disagreement is escalating as senior U.S. lawmakers and politicians attempt to pillory Apple for being uncooperative.

In fact, according to the New York Times, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr has now directly entered the fray, declaring the Dec. 6 shooting in Pensacola to be an “act of terrorism” and making what the Times calls an “unusually high-profile request” for Apple to provide access to the two iPhones used by the shooter, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who was a Saudi Air Force cadet who had been training with the American military.

The FBI obtained a court order allowing them to search the gunman’s iPhones within a day of the shooting in early December, however it only approached Apple last week after it was unsuccessful in gaining access to the iPhones through other channels, such as other government agencies, foreign governments, and third-party technology vendors.

‘No Substantive Assistance’

More pointedly, however, Barr is ramping up the pressure on Apple, claiming that the company has provided “no substantive assistance” to the FBI in response to requests to provide data on the shooter, implying that the iPhone maker is actually stonewalling law enforcement.

While the accusation may be somewhat true from the perspective of Barr and the FBI, who seem to be focusing solely on accessing the data from the two physical iPhones in question, Apple categorically rejected Barr’s claim, releasing a statement that it’s been proactively working with the FBI since it was first asked to, and has promptly supplied all of the requested data that it’s capable of providing.

We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.

Apple statement

In the statement, Apple also adds that it was “devastated to learn of the tragic terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida” and that it has “the greatest respect for law enforcement and routinely work(s) with police across the country on their investigations,” adding that when it receives a request for assistance from law enforcement, it has teams that “work around the clock” to provide them with whatever information they can.

‘Many Gigabyes of Information’

In fact, Apple points out that it first received a request from the FBI on Dec. 6, the same day that the shooting occurred, and in response “produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation.” Six additional legal requests were received in the week following, and Apple responded by providing “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts” that made up “many gigabytes of information” that it handed over to FBI investigators.

In every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had.

According to Apple, it wasn’t until a month later, on Jan. 6, that it was notified by the FBI that additional assistance was required, including the revelation that there was a second iPhone involved, along with the FBI’s inability to access either of the iPhones directly. Apple received a subpoena for information related to the second iPhone on January 8th, and notes that it responded to it within hours, again providing all of the information that was available from its data centres.

No Backdoors

However, Apple remains committed to its stance on not weakening encryption, once again emphasizing that “there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys” — a point that many legislators and law enforcement officials seem to either fail to understand or are wilfully ignoring.

We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance. Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.

Apple statement

It sounds very much like this is shaping up to be another standoff similar to the case of the San Bernardino shooter back in 2015, but with the U.S. Attorney General getting directly involved, and lawmakers threatening to “impose their will” on Apple, the stakes are getting even higher.

According to “people close to the company” cited by the Times, Apple “will not back down from its unequivocal support of encryption that is impossible to crack,”however Justice Department officials insist that they need access to the shooter’s iPhones in order to determine whether he was acting alone or had been working with others. Somewhat ironically, they’re hoping that getting into the iPhones will allow them to access data stored in other encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal, in the hopes that there may be additional information that they obviously haven’t been able to obtain from the iCloud backups that Apple has already supplied them with.

In the 2015 San Bernardino case, Apple was determined to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court if it had to, with Apple CEO Tim Cook calling an iPhone backdoor the equivalent of software cancer. On the other side, however, many U.S. lawmakers believe that Apple’s strong encryption has created a “safe haven for criminals” and have been trying to scare the public into supporting backdoors by raising the spectre of not only terrorists, but pedophiles, suggesting that Apple’s encryption is a “gift from Apple” to sex traffickers.

While David Bowdich, the deputy director of the FBI, said at a news conference that he wants to be clear that “We’re not trying to weaken encryption,” U.S. President Donald Trump stated last month that it is one of the Justice Department’s “highest priorities” to find a way for law enforcement to gain access to encrypted technology.

However, Apple may have found an unlikely ally in the U.S. Department of Defense, which went on the record last month as stating that strong and state of the art encryption is absolutely “critical to the protection of national security,” a stark contrast to the claims coming from the Department of Justice that it actually undermines national security.

In the case of the San Bernardino shooter, the FBI found another way to bypass the encryption on the iPhone in question, but this time around it seems that it may have already exhausted these other efforts before approaching Apple. The iPhones in question here are older models — an iPhone 7 with Touch ID and an iPhone 5 without — however the San Bernardino shooter’s device was an iPhone 5c. This would be hardware equivalent to the iPhone 5, although naturally four years ago it would have been running nothing later than iOS 9, while the iPhone 5 in this case most likely has iOS 10 installed.

There’s been a lot of speculation among political and legal experts as to how much of a fight Apple would have had on its hands had the FBI not gotten into the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone using other means, but with things heating up in this latest case, and other law enforcement seemingly being stymied in its efforts to access the devices, we may soon find an answer to that question.

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