FBI finally unlock shooter’s iPhones, Apple berated for not helping

The FBI said on Monday that it figured out how to unlock the iPhones of the shooter who killed three young US Navy students and injured eight at a Pensacola, Florida naval base in December 2019.

No thanks to you, Apple, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a news release:

Thanks to the great work of the FBI – and no thanks to Apple – we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones.

Barr has on multiple times issued public calls for encryption backdoors.

On Monday, the AG joined FBI Director Christopher Wray in a virtual press conference. Barr used the opportunity to once again call for a “legislative solution” to the roadblock of Apple’s encryption, while Wray referred to the FBI’s “Apple problem.”

Both gave FBI workers a pat on the back for the months they spent working to unlock the damaged iPhones.

In January, following the shootings, the bureau had asked Apple to help it unlock two iPhones that belonged to murderer Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. Also in January, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that its investigations showed the incident was an act of terrorism, motivated by jihadist ideology. On 2 February, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the shooting spree.

The FBI had gotten a subpoena allowing it to search content on the iPhones, both of which were password-protected and one of which Alshamrani put a bullet hole through, further complicating forensics on the device and its data.

An FBI press release related to Monday’s conference included a photo of the hole in one iPhone and of an iPhone alert saying “Authorized Service Provider Only.”

Photos of Pensacola shooter's iPhones
Photos of Pensacola shooter’s iPhones. IMAGE: FBI

Wray said that FBI agents had spent months trying to crack the iPhones – hours, days and weeks of hard work that otherwise would have been spent protecting Americans from terrorists if not for what he called law enforcement’s “Apple problem.”

He praised the FBI staff’s hard work…

I want to thank and congratulate the men and women at the FBI who devoted months of hard work to accessing these devices. They successfully tackled a problem that required tenacity, creativity, and technical expertise.

…and then lashed out at Apple for not making it easier to do:

The technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem.

The “broader Apple problem” refers to apps with end-to-end, warrant-proof encryption: apps that Alshamrani and his AQAP associates deliberately used in order to evade law enforcement while communicating their plans.

Wray didn’t give details on the technique used to crack Alshamrani’s iPhones. What he did say was that the FBI tried every encryption-bypass tool and technique out there, but that none of them worked:

We canvassed every partner, and every company, that might have had a solution to access these phones. None did, despite what some claimed in the media. So we did it ourselves.

When it asked for Apple’s help in January, the FBI said that it had tried the same tactics it used when it was trying to unlock the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. Namely, it asked for help from other federal agencies – it sent the iPhones to the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico, Virginia – and from experts in other countries, as well as “familiar contacts in the third-party vendor community.”

The last was seen as a possible reference to the tool that the FBI used to finally break into Farook’s encrypted phone and thereby render moot the FBI versus Apple legal battle over encryption.

Apple: Backdoors weaken security for all

Throughout the San Bernardino encryption battle and up until the current battle over Alshamrani’s locked phones, Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken a firm stand, publicly stating the company’s refusal to break its own encryption. Apple has steadfastly maintained that weakening encryption so as to give law enforcement a backdoor would weaken security for all, giving bad actors a foothold into getting at innocent people’s data.

We’ve just as steadfastly concurred with that line of thinking: saying #nobackdoors and agreeing with the Information Technology Industry Council that “Weakening security with the aim of advancing security simply does not make sense.”

In response to the FBI’s request for help in January, Apple had said that, short of breaking its own security technology, it was helping the government in any way that it could:

We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations. When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available.

On Monday, Apple’s response to Wray’s wrath was in keeping with everything that it’s already said on the matter. Apple’s statement:

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.

Apple blamed for delaying investigation

The DOJ succeeded in cracking the iPhones. Why, then, does it feel the need to berate Apple? This time around, it’s blaming the company’s encryption for causing a delay in the related national security investigation. The company’s refusal to weaken encryption meant that its agents didn’t know what to ask or what to look for, Wray said. Therefore, they wasted time tracking down anything and everything, incapable as they were of zeroing in on the likeliest leads:

In the aftermath of the attack, we and our Joint Terrorism Task Force partners worked urgently to collect and analyze evidence. In the weeks immediately following December 6, we conducted over 500 interviews of witnesses, base personnel, and the shooter’s friends, classmates, and associates – among many other efforts. Because the crucial evidence on the killer’s phones was kept from us, we did all that investigating not knowing what we do now: valuable intelligence about what to ask, what to look for. If we had, our round-the-clock, all-hands-on-deck effort would have been a lot more productive.

The terrorists have been able to use that time to their advantage, Wray said, concocting and comparing stories with co-conspirators:

As a result, there’s a lot we just can’t do at this point that we could have done months ago.

For his part, Barr reiterated his belief that things can’t go on this way:

…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.

Carving up privacy one chunk at a time

Those “legislative solutions” are in the works. The FBI’s most recent fuming over Apple’s encryption is only the latest of several legislative moves to carve up Americans’ privacy. One such: the EARN-IT Act, or the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act. The bill would require tech companies to meet safety requirements for children online before obtaining immunity from lawsuits. You can read the discussion draft here.

To kill that immunity, the bill would undercut Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) from certain apps and companies so that they could be held responsible for user-uploaded content. Section 230, considered the most important law protecting free speech online, states that websites aren’t liable for user-submitted content.

Strip away Section 230, and platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and even end-to-end encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Signal would essentially have to give the government a backdoor to any and all customer information.

In other “let’s carve chunks out of privacy” moves, the Senate voted last week to reauthorize the Patriot Act while also renewing warrantless searches of web histories. The USA Freedom Reauthorization Act restores government powers that expired in March with Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The bill has already been approved by both the House and Senate. All that’s left now to make it law is for Congress to iron out the differences in their drafts and for President Trump to sign the completed version.

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