Apple and the U.S. Justice Department are at it again. This time it’s over cracking a brace of iPhones owned by the Saudi Air Force cadet who killed three sailors in a shooting spree last month at the naval air station in Pensacola, Florida.
At a news conference held Monday to announce the findings of an investigation into the Pensacola incident, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr called out Apple for refusing to help the FBI recover data on the phones owned by the cadet, Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who also was a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force.
“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance,” Barr told reporters, reading from a statement.
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause,” he continued.
“We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks,” Barr added.
Barr’s Comments Refuted
Barr’s comments provoked Apple to issue a statement of its own on the subject.
“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation,” Apple said. “Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”
Within hours of the FBI’s first request for information, Apple provided the agency with a variety of information for its probe and continued to do so from Dec. 7 to Dec. 14. In response to six additional requests for information, the company provided investigators with iCloud backups, account information, and transactional data for multiple accounts.
“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 said in its statement.
“We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance,” it added. “Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.”
Backdoors Swing 2 Ways
In its statement, Apple criticized the use of “backdoors” as a means for law enforcement to obtain data protected by encryption.
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the company stated.
“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,” it continued.
Apple is right to provide strong security to its users, requiring a passcode or biometrics to unlock a phone, maintained Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights advocacy group in San Francisco.
“The attorney general’s request that Apple re-engineer its phones to break that security imperils millions of innocent Americans and others around the globe, and is a poor trade-off for security policy,” he told TechNewsWorld.
There is a fundamental disagreement on this issue, observed Tim Erlin, vice president of product management and strategy at Tripwire, a cybersecurity threat detection and prevention company in Portland, Oregon.
“Advocates for lawful access believe that the ability to catch criminals outweighs the risks of compromised privacy, and privacy advocates believe that your right to privacy outweighs the governments right to search those devices,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“There’s no doubt that the ability to bypass a device’s encryption compromises privacy. The argument put forth in favor of such access is that it’s worth it,” Erlin said.
No one on either side of the argument — law enforcement or technology — has come up with “a means to provide lawful access that can’t be abused or exploited by unintended third parties,” he continued.
“This isn’t a new fight for either the U.S. government or Apple,” added Erlin. “By making a very public request on a very high-profile incident, Barr is aiming to put public pressure on Apple to comply where legal pressure has previously failed to get a result.”
Creating Public Pressure
The Justice Department has wanted legislation mandating backdoors to encrypted devices for decades, noted Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
“They knew before they asked that Apple wasn’t going to be able to unlock the phones,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Rather, this is about picking a high-profile case to restart that debate and create political pressure for that policy,” Sanchez continued.
“We know they did this in the San Bernardino case, where an internal watchdog report found that the FBI was so eager for a court fight to make a political point that they didn’t put much effort into exploring other ways to crack the phone — even though that’s what ultimately worked,” he said.
Fourteen people were killed and 22 seriously injured during a terrorist attack four years ago on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. The FBI pressured Apple to crack the phone of one of the terrorists, but the company refused. Eventually, a contractor was found with tools to hack the phone for the FBI.
“There are presumably dozens if not hundreds of phones the FBI would like to break into,” Sanchez said. “They know full well Apple can’t do what they’re asking. They’ve decided to stage a public fight over this one because they think it’s a case that will create political pressure on Congress to give them the policy they want.
Reason for Skepticism
The Justice Department and FBI have been misleading the public about their inability to access data on cellphones, maintained Gregory T. Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, an online civil liberties and human rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
“On one occasion, they overstated by at least a factor of four the number of phones they could not break into,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“On another occasion, they sued Apple to compel assistance, even though they had a contractor 90 percent of the way to finding a solution. Eventually, the contractor broke into the phone, and the Department of Justice dropped the lawsuit,” Nojeim said.
“So I think there’s reason to be skeptical about FBI claims that it’s going dark,” he observed.
“Encryption is important for the functioning of society today,” added Nojeim. “There are so many opportunities for the FBI to track us and gain information about who we contact and who contacts us. It has more access to more data about more people than at any other time in the history of the country.”