Apple has pushed back after criticisms from the US attorney-general, William Barr, over how it handled locked iPhones in the Pensacola shooter case. Barr revealed today that the FBI had accessed the two iPhones from the shooter – who killed three Americans at the Naval Air Station in December 2019 – and accused Apple of double-standards in how it handled security requests.
The FBI had requested Apple’s assistance in unlocking the two smartphones back in January, with Barr suggesting that the Cupertino firm “has not given any substantive assistance” in the case. Damaged before the FBI took possession, the two iPhones were repaired but were secured by passwords.
Apple countered that portrayal, pointing out that it had complied with legal requests by supplying iCloud backups, accent information, and other data. However it argued that it could not unlock the iPhones themselves without having the passcode first. The gunman in the Pensacola case, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was killed at the scene by sheriff deputies.
Now, Barr says that the FBI has gained access to the iPhones without Apple’s help. He also slammed Apple for double-standards around how it deals with user data, suggesting that it had opened data centers in Russia and China so that it would be in compliance with “bulk surveillance by those governments,” and “facilitating censorship and oppression” through removing apps that were being used by pro-democracy protestors.
“Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said today.
“If technology companies like Apple are willing to oblige the demands of authoritarian regimes,” Barr continued, “they certainly have no excuse for failing to co-operate with rule-of-law nations that respect civil liberties and privacy rights, and have judicial safeguards.” The attorney-general went on to suggest that legislation to force tech firms like Apple to bypass encryption upon government demands was needed.
“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” William Barr, attorney-general, US Department of Justice
It’s not the first time the Department of Justice has argued for greater legal strengths when it comes to accessing encrypted data. Back in 2018, reports suggested the FBI and DoJ had been exploring ways to push through more permissive legislation that would broaden its powers to compel companies like Apple and Google to unlock phones.
Unsurprisingly, Apple has pushed back at Barr’s characterizations. In a statement from the company today – repeated in full below – it alleged that the attorney-general’s complaints were “false” and made in the interest of forcing through weakened security.
“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,” Apple suggests. “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.”
As for the idea of a legally-required backdoor why would bypass passcode security in cases like this on, Apple is scornful. “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company points out, “and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”
Barr and the Department of Justice are yet to respond to Apple’s comments.
“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.”