- The FBI has gained access to iPhones belonging to a gunman who killed three sailors at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, in December, revealing ties to al Qaeda.
- Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced the news on Monday, saying that the FBI managed to unlock the devices without Apple’s help.
- The findings come after Barr said Apple failed to provide substantial help in gaining access to the shooter’s phones back in January.
- Barr’s remarks once again raised the complicated issue of whether Apple should be obligated to break privacy protocols by unlocking devices in matters of national security.
- The fear is that if Apple were to create such a tool, it could fall into the wrong hands and become a larger privacy issue.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The FBI managed to gain access to iPhones belonging to a gunman who killed three sailors at a Florida naval base in December, revealing new evidence that links the shooter to al Qaeda, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray announced at a press conference on Monday.
The announcement comes months after Barr accused Apple of failing to help authorities gain access to the shooter’s phones to assist with the investigation back in January.
Newly discovered evidence found on the phones revealed that the shooter, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, had “significant ties” to al Quaeda, they said. The revelation comes after Barr previously said that the attack was an “act of terrorism” in January. Authorities now have more information on Alshamrani’s activities in the years, months, and days leading up to his attack.
“Today I am pleased to announce that thanks to the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians, the FBI finally succeeded in unlocking Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said during Monday’s press conference.
Barr said again on Monday that Apple “would not help” officials gain access to the gunman’s iPhones. Apple had previously refuted such claims, saying that it provided iCloud backups, account information, and other data from Alshamrani’s account to assist with the investigation.
“We asked Apple for assistance. The president asked Apple for assistance,” Barr said. “Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user – in this case, the terrorist – could gain access to the contents.”
Apple said in a statement that it responded to the FBI’s first requests for information immediately following the attack on December 6 and has “continued to support law enforcement during their investigation.” The company said it provided the FBI with all the information it had available and has offered ongoing technical and investigative support in the months since.
“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 said in a statement. “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.”
It’s not the first time the FBI has gained access to a shooter’s phone as part of an investigation without Apple’s help. Apple took a similar position back in 2016 when it clashed with the FBI over whether it should unlock an iPhone linked to a shooting in San Bernardino, California. The FBI ultimately worked with a private company to unlock that device.
The issue boils down to fears that if Apple were to create such a tool for unlocking an iPhone, there’s a possibility it could be used for nefarious purposes if malicious actors were to get a hold of it, as privacy experts have previously told Business Insider.
“I would say the chances of it falling into the wrong hands are 100%,” Mark Nunnikhoven, vice president of cloud research for cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, previously said to Business Insider.
Apple cited a similar concern in its statement.
“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,” Apple said in its most recent statement, which is consistent with its response from January.
Creating such a method for unlocking phones could also put user data in the hands of Apple employees since they are presumably the ones that would be developing such a tool, Nunnikhoven also said when discussing the issue with Business Insider in January.
That would seemingly go against Apple’s hands-off approach when it comes to consumer data.
Monday’s press conference once again raised the thorny issue of whether Apple should be obligated to help the FBI gain access to users’ devices when it comes to matters of national security.
“In cases like this where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases where the user is a violent criminal, a human trafficker, a child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for the public safety and the national security, and is in my judgement, unacceptable,” Barr said. “Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs.”
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