The federal government is preparing for another fight with Apple in an ongoing battle for access to encrypted iPhones. Though this round is about unlocking the device of a mass shooter with suspected terrorist ties, the result may determine how far, and how easily, the government can reach into your phone, too.
Attorney General William Barr said in a press conference on Monday that the December mass shooting on a Pensacola, Florida, naval air station — which resulted in the deaths of three US sailors as well as the shooter, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani — was an act of terrorism. He then called on Apple to give law enforcement access to Alshamrani’s two iPhones to see if he communicated with terrorist groups or had any co-conspirators. (Because iPhones have a security feature that wipes a phone’s data if too many incorrect six-digit passcodes are entered, law enforcement can’t simply guess at the right one.)
Barr’s very public demand — and complaints over Apple’s non-cooperation thus far — were likely meant to ramp up pressure on the company to comply.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s phones,” Barr said in the conference. “So far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause.”
In a statement to Recode, Apple said that it “reject[s] the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation” and said that it has been working “tirelessly” to help the FBI investigate the shooting. “We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York. The queries resulted in many gigabytes of information that we turned over to investigators. In every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had,” Apple wrote.
But the company made it clear it does not plan to give the US government a way to decrypt iPhones: “We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” Apple wrote. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”
That stance mirrors its refusal four years ago to give the FBI access to a locked iPhone belonging to San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. Back in 2016, the FBI obtained a court order demanding that Apple create a back door into all of its encrypted devices so law enforcement could access them. Apple refused, saying that protecting the privacy and security of its customers — including those in countries like Russia and China — was more important than the government’s demand.
The American Civil Liberties Union seems to agree. “The government’s demand would weaken the security of millions of iPhones, and is dangerous and unconstitutional,” Jennifer Granick, ACLU’s Surveillance and Cybersecurity Counsel, told Recode in a statement. “Strong encryption enables religious minorities facing genocide, like the Uighurs in China, and journalists investigating powerful drug cartels in Mexico, to communicate safely with each other, knowledgeable sources, and the outside world.”
The 2016 case wound its way through the legal system until the FBI found another way to access the device, without Apple’s help: It paid hackers $1.3 million to find and exploit a software flaw. The government dropped its case, and the courts never had to rule one way or the other.
Now, Barr has reopened the debate. Should it reach a court this time, the decision may have ramifications well beyond phones that belong to mass shooters. And that’s been Apple’s point all along: If the government can force it to crack one phone or include a back door in its products, then there’s nothing stopping the government from accessing every device — including yours.
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