Terrorist Act Revives Clash Between Government and Apple

In the aftermath of a deadly shooting at a Naval air station in Pensacola, Florida that was later declared an act of terrorism, Attorney General William Barr requested that Apple provide access to the two iPhones used by the killer. He later complained that Apple has thus far provided no “substantive assistance.” The Saudi Arabian assassin, Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, was training with the U.S. military but had earlier posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadist screeds on social media.

The New York Times reports that, “the battle between the government and technology companies over advanced encryption and other digital security measures has simmered for years.” For its part, Apple stopped unlocking phones for the government in 2014 and “unveiled a more secure operating system,” arguing that “data privacy is a human rights issue.”

It stated that, should it create a backdoor for the U.S. government, “hackers or foreign governments like China would exploit the tool.” Law enforcement’s position is that Apple “provid[es] a haven for criminals” and that a “legislative solution” is required.

This case harkens back to a similar standoff in late 2015 when the government wanted access to an iPhone used in a terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Apple defied a court order to help the FBI, but the standoff was resolved when the FBI used a private company to break the encryption.

The Justice Department stated it wants to see Alshamrani’s “data and messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.” Barr said that “Trump administration officials have again begun discussing a legislative fix.”

FBI officials are “still trying to gain access to the phones on its own and approached Apple only after asking other government agencies, foreign governments and third-party technology vendors for help, to no avail.”

The Verge reports that Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella “reiterated the company’s opposition to encryption backdoors but expressed tentative support for legal and technical solutions in the future.”

“I do think backdoors are a terrible idea, that is not the way to go about this,” he said. “We’ve always said we care about these two things: privacy and public safety. We need some legal and technical solution in our democracy to have both of those be priorities.”

Nadella did not state that “companies could never provide data under such circumstances, or that Apple shouldn’t provide a jailbroken iOS modification under the circumstances,” but he did express “support for key escrow systems, versions of which have been proposed by researchers in the past.” In the San Bernardino case, Microsoft stated “wholehearted” support for Apple and joined it “in opposing some of the encryption bills pushed in the wake of the trial.”

Related:
As Justice Department Pressures Apple, Investigators Say iPhone Easier to Crack, The Wall Street Journal, 1/14/20
Trump Criticizes Apple’s Encryption Stance on Pensacola Phones, Reuters, 1/14/20
Apple Takes a (Cautious) Stand Against Opening a Killer’s iPhones, The New York Times, 1/14/20