US President Donald Trump has rounded on Apple, in the latest case where it is being asked by US authorities to unlock iPhones belonging to a dead terrorist.
The President’s intervention came after US Attorney General William Barr in a press conference on the issue, accused Apple of refusing to provide ‘substantive assistance’.
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 others. Alshamrani was later killed in a shoot out with police.
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.
The FBI is seeking Apple’s assistance in unlocking two iPhones (an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 5) that belonged to Alshamrani. The FBI has obtained court authorisation to search the phones but failed to gain access by guessing the passwords.
Both phones are locked and encrypted. 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.
Apple has hit back at Barr’s accusation, 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. Apple reportedly said it will not back down from its unequivocal support of encryption.
Into this President Trump has decided to intervene, via his usual communication medium of Twitter.
“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” President Trump tweeted. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
But Apple’s stance has been backed by security experts.
“Apple has set fairly clear boundaries and has stood by them. It has done everything it can without sacrificing its principles,” said Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate, Comparitech.com.
“If it were to decrypt one iPhone, it would set a precedent that would allow any iPhone to be decrypted,” said Bischoff. “And it might also create a vulnerability that would let attackers, including nation-state actors, break into iPhones.”
“I think we’re seeing a repeat scenario of what happened with the San Bernardino shooter a few years ago, in which the FBI made a similar request to decrypt the shooter’s phone,” he concluded. “The FBI eventually gave up trying to get Apple’s help and sought alternatives.”
Indeed, Trump’s intervention is unlikely to change Apple’s stance, as 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 terrorist 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.
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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