The United States government including Attorney General William Barr and President Trump have been after Apple to help with the unlocking of Pensacola shooter’s iPhones. AG Barr has asserted that the tech giant hasn’t given law enforcement “substantive assistance” in the investigation.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s phones,” Barr said at a press 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.”
The president, despite his good relationship with Apple CEO Tim Cook, ripped into the company on Twitter, saying the government needs help with cracking encrypted iPhones used by “killers, drug dealers, and other violent criminal elements.”
Trump took to Twitter and said, “We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues… They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was in Pensacola for flight training, when he shot to death three Americans at Pensacola Naval Air Station on December 6. The 21-year-old gunman was then shot and killed by a deputy sheriff during the attack, which U.S. officials called an act of terrorism.
The government wants to see who the shooter was communicating with on his two iPhones. They want to see what sites he was visiting on the internet, but have been frustrated as both of his phones were encrypted.
However, Apple has pushed back against the government, denying it hasn’t provided assistance. “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 said in a statement last week.
In the statement by Apple, the company said that they “produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation” immediately after the FBI’s initial request on December 6. They sent the Bureau “gigabytes of information” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts” as the investigation’s scope increased later in the month.
So, what is the sticking point between Apple and the government? Apple has been resisting attempts by law enforcement to provide a backdoor for law enforcement professionals to crack encrypted iPhones. This has been ongoing since the 2016 shooting in San Bernadino, CA when Apple fought a court order to access the iPhone of the shooter in that case.
Apple refused to create decryption software for the FBI, saying the request violated the company’s First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights. “We see that this is our moment to stand up and say, Stop and force a dialogue,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the 2016 case. “There’s been too many times that government is just so strong and so powerful and so loud that they really just limit or they don’t hear the discourse.”
But in the San Bernadino case, FBI forensic agents were able to access most of the shooter’s data on their own without Apple’s help. What Apple has argued in the past, and is doing so again in this case, is that there is a fine line between public safety and civil liberties.
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” Apple said last week. “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.”
Apple went to this model of making the data on the iPhones more secure because hackers were taking data off the phones and then using it for identity theft. In the 2016 case in San Bernadino, FBI forensic agents and a third-party civilian company were able to crack into the phone. Since that case, Apple has improved the encryption and software to make its devices even more secure and harder to get into than they used to be just a few years ago.
“We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance,” Apple’s statement said. “Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.”
Thus far, Congress has not gotten involved with any legislation on this matter. And any legislation, could, of course, have the opposite effect. Lawmakers could enact statutes to better protect users’ privacy, or they could wind up with laws that would require companies like Apple to comply with law enforcement requests.