Apple Hits Back Over ‘Refusal’ To Unlock Pensacola Shooter’s iPhones

Here we go again. US Attorney General says Apple failed to help unlock terrorist iPhones, but Apple says it has provided all the assistance it can

Apple is once again at the centre of a case where it is being asked by US authorities to unlock iPhones belonging to a dead terrorist.

The case centres over a mass shooting at a US Naval Air Station in Pensacola (Florida) on 6 December. Saudi military trainee Mohammed Alshamrani opened fire in a classroom and killed three American sailors and wounded eight other people.

Alshamrani, 21, who was training to be a naval flight officer, was then killed in a shoot-out with police.

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Phone unlocking

On Monday US Attorney General William Barr at a press conference, branded the shooting as an ‘act of terrorism’, and he urged Apple to co-operate with the FBI which is trying to crack two iPhones used by Alshamrani.

At the same press conference, Barr accused Apple of refusing to provide ‘substantive assistance’, the Daily Mail reported.

This call from Barr is the latest escalation by the US Department of Justice (DoJ), in its ongoing battle with Apple to open up access to encrypted iPhones.

The FBI reportedly are seeking Apple’s assistance in unlocking two iPhones (an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 5) that belonged to Alshamrani. Both phones are locked and encrypted, a letter from the FBI’s general counsel, Dana Boente reportedly stated.

One of the phones was shot when Alshamrani was killed, but authorities believe data is still recoverable from it.

The FBI wants to see who Alshamrani was communicating with, before he went on his rampage.

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence,” Barr was reported by the Mail as saying. He accussed Apple of providing no “substantive assistance.”

The US attorney general reportedly indicated that he intends to use the Alshamrani case to push for a solution to the DoJ’s struggle to bypass Apple security features.

“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Barr reportedly said. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”

Apple statement

The FBI has obtained court authorisation to search the phones but failed to gain access by guessing the passwords, Boente reportedly said.

But Apple has hit back and said it rejects “the characterisation that Apple has not provided substantive assistance”.

Apple said in a statement that it has already provided investigators with all the relevant data held by the company and would continue to support the probe.

Sources close to Apple meanwhile told the New York Times that the company will not back down from its unequivocal support of encryption.

“We reject the characterisation that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation,” Apple told Business Insider. “Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”

Apple also said it has produced “a wide variety of information associated with the investigation… including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.”

San Bernardino

This is not the first time that Apple has clashed with the US DoJ over its refusal to unlock (even if it could) an encrypted iPhone protected by a passcode.

In 2016, the FBI tried to force Apple to help it unlock an iPhone that had been used by a shooter in San Bernardino, California.

Apple refused, with CEO Tim Cook saying the implications of the demand were “chilling”.

Cook also said that the FBI’s request at the time to create a new operating system, was the “software equivalent to cancer” – a privacy stance that was backed by tech rivals at the time.

This led to a prolonged clash with the FBI and US government, and in the end FBI paid an undisclosed group more than $1 million (£750,000) to help it access the phone.

It should be noted that ALL American firms can be compelled on national security grounds to hand over data on their servers when requested by US officials.

Apple says it cannot unlocked a “permanently inaccessible” iPhone when there has been ten failed attempts to guess the passcode.

Another point to note is that Apple, like other US tech firms, are not allowed to disclose the specific number of unlocking requests it receives from US authorities.

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