It looks like the most recent contention between the FBI and Apple over device encryption has come to an end as the agency has unlocked the two iPhones belonging to the Pensacola shooter with “no thanks to Apple.” Going further, AG William Barr has again called for the government to force Apple and others to create backdoors into their devices.
Update: We’ve got an official response from Apple on the matter that highlights all the ways it helped the FBI and that it’s precisely because it takes security and privacy so seriously that it doesn’t believe in creating a backdoor:
The terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida was a devastating and heinous act. Apple responded to the FBI’s first requests for information just hours after the attack on December 6, 2019 and continued to support law enforcement during their investigation. We provided every piece of information available to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts, and we lent continuous and ongoing technical and investigative support to FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York over the months since.
On this and many thousands of other cases, we continue to work around-the-clock with the FBI and other investigators who keep Americans safe and bring criminals to justice. As a proud American company, we consider supporting law enforcement’s important work our responsibility. The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.
It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.
Customers count on Apple to keep their information secure and one of the ways in which we do so is by using strong encryption across our devices and servers. We sell the same iPhone everywhere, we don’t store customers’ passcodes and we don’t have the capacity to unlock passcode-protected devices. In data centers, we deploy strong hardware and software security protections to keep information safe and to ensure there are no backdoors into our systems. All of these practices apply equally to our operations in every country in the world.
Back in January, we learned that the FBI asked Apple to unlock two iPhones that were used by Mohammed Alshamrani, who attacked the Naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Apple handed over the data it had and said that it helped in all the ways it could outside of creating a backdoor for iPhones.
At first, it wasn’t known which iPhone models were in question but a week later, it surfaced that they were older ones, the iPhone 5 and 7. As we noted at the time, both are easily crackable through third-parties, but the FBI continued to ask for Apple’s help.
Then the next day, on January 15, news broke that the FBI had already unlocked an iPhone 11 Pro with a device called GrayKey, giving further evidence that the FBI could get the data it needed without a backdoor being created by Apple.
In February, the FBI said it had “reconstructed an iPhone belonging to the shooter” and that it was is “currently engaged with Apple hoping to see if we can get better help from them so we can get access to that phone.” That’s again despite the known methods of cracking the devices, so the move appeared to be another attempt to pressure Apple into creating a backdoor.
Not much was heard about the case until today when CNN reported that the FBI has finally gained access to the iPhones’ data.
US investigators uncovered the al Qaeda connection after the FBI broke through the encryption protecting the Saudi attacker’s iPhones, the officials said. Attorney General William Barr and the FBI are expected to announce the finding Monday in a news conference.
In a press release today, Attorney General William P. Barr announced the news. That also included an attack on Apple and another call for the government to force it and other tech companies to create a backdoor into devices.
“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” said Attorney General Barr. “The trove of information found on these phones has proven to be invaluable to this ongoing investigation and critical to the security of the American people. However, if not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered. The bottom line: our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.”
Apple has consistently maintained that there’s no way to create a backdoor into its devices just for the government that won’t also be abused by those around the world for nefarious purposes, creating serious privacy and security for all users.
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