Apple Pushes Back On U.S. Government Claims That Company Won’t Unlock iPhones Belonging To Shooter

Apple Pushes Back On U.S. Government Claims That Company Won’t Unlock iPhones Belonging To Shooter
Photo: ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP, Getty

Following comments by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that Apple has not provided “substantive assistance” in its investigation related to the shooting last month at a naval airbase in Pensacola, Florida, Apple has addressed the issue by stating that there’s “no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys.”

During a press conference on Monday, Barr addressed DOJ’s apparent standoff between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple over two locked iPhones that belonged to shooter Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. According to Barr, the agency “sought and received court authorisation based on probable cause to search both phones in an effort to run down all leads and figure out with whom the shooter was communicating.”

“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones. So far Apple has not given us any substantive assistance,” Barr said.

But in a lengthy statement shared with Gizmodo, Apple said it “reject[s] the characterisation 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.” The company added that FBI requests by its offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola, and New York “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.”

But the company also said—counter to what Barr claimed during Monday’s press event—that it was only made aware of “the existence of a second iPhone associated with the investigation and the FBI’s inability to access either iPhone” on January 6, a full month after the incident.

“We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance. Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation,” Apple said in the statement. “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. 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.”

Citing a source familiar with the matter, the New York Times reported Monday that the two phones that belonged to the shooter were an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 5. When asked specifically whether the company intended to unlock the phones, Apple only pointed Gizmodo back to its statement.

Apple’s history of refusing to unlock iPhones at the request of law enforcement was publicly castigated by Barr this week, and the attorney general said Monday the incident “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.”

But privacy advocates and security experts disagree, claiming that could open devices up to hacking. In a statement to Gizmodo, Senator Ron Wyden backed up those claims.

“If William Barr and Donald Trump succeed in weakening encryption with a back door, they’ll also make it far easier for criminals and hackers and predators to get into the digital life of you and your family,” Wyden said. “If there were a backdoor in American phones, terrorists and criminals would surely shift to foreign encryption services outside the reach of American law enforcement.”

Apple’s full statement provided to Gizmodo is as follows:

We were devastated to learn of the tragic terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida on December 6th. We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and routinely work with police across the country on their investigations. When law enforcement requests our assistance, our teams work around the clock to provide them with the information we have.

We reject the characterisation 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.

Within hours of the FBI’s first request on December 6th, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation. From December 7th through the 14th, we received six additional legal requests and in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.

We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York. 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.

The FBI only notified us on January 6th that they needed additional assistance — a month after the attack occurred. Only then did we learn about the existence of a second iPhone associated with the investigation and the FBI’s inability to access either iPhone. It was not until January 8th that we received a subpoena for information related to the second iPhone, which we responded to within hours. Early outreach is critical to accessing information and finding additional options.

We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance. Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation.

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. 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.