FBI Criticises Apple For Failing To Help Unlock iPhones

The FBI said it has gained access to two iPhones used by a man who attacked the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida in December 2019, but criticised Apple for refusing to assist in its efforts.

FBI Director Chris Wray called for legislation that would force technology companies to build encryption that authorities can readily circumvent with a court order.

Wray expressed “disappointment” that it took “over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars” to access the devices due to their being locked.

Apple said the FBI had made “false claims” as part of a campaign to force the company to weaken its security measures.

Custom tool

The iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 Plus were recovered from attacker Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani following the December incident, in which Alshamrani was killed.

US Attorney general William Barr noted that Alshamrani had attempted to destroy both phones, even disengaging from the firefight long enough to fire a bullet into one of them.

Nevertheless, the FBI managed to activate both devices, but Wray said the agency was not able to use any readily available technology to unlock them, and was obliged to develop its own tool.

“We canvassed every partner out there and every company that might have had a solution to access these phones,” Wray told a press conference.  “None did.  So we did it ourselves.”

He added that the tool was “pretty limited” and was “not a fix for our broader Apple problem”.

Wray said there are some cases in which “an individual’s privacy interests” should yield to those of public safety.

“There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security,” Wray said. “Privacy and public safety are not mutually exclusive.”

‘Legislative solution’

He added that the case demonstrates “the need for a legislative solution”.

Apple said the FBI had made “false claims” used to force it to weaken iPhone 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,” the company said in a 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.”

Industry watchers said it was surprising that the FBI had not been able to use a range of existing tools and exploits to unlock the phones, both of which are older models that have weaker security than current iPhones.

In 2016 the FBI and Apple carried on a highly public feud for several months over the company’s refusal to help it access an iPhone used by a man who had carried out a deadly attack in San Bernardino, California.

In that case, the FBI eventually used a commercial system to unlock the device.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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