Analysis Apple has responded to a demand from the United States' Attorney General William Barr that it grant the FBI access to two iPhones used in a recent shooting by carefully calling bullshit on his claims.
Barr held a press conference on Monday in which he accused Apple of not having given the FBI “any substantive assistance” in the case of Saudi airman Mohammed al-Shamrani, who shot and killed three American sailors at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
Barr tried to paint the tech goliath as standing in the way of an important terrorist investigation. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks,” he argued, giving some details of the case that pointed to jihadist motivation behind the attack.
But Apple was having none of it, putting out a response today that gently but firmly disputes Barr’s representation, and even raises questions over what Barr and the FBI’s real motivation is.
“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation,” the statement read in part. “Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”
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Apple has provided “many gigabytes of information,” it stated - mostly backups from its iCloud service - and it provides a timeline of requests and responses.
“Within hours of the FBIs first request on December 6th, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation. From December 7th through the 14th, we received six additional legal requests and in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” Apple notes, adding that “in every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had.”
The real issue of course is the data on the actual phones themselves. Barr noted that the shooter has posted anti-American messages on social media and implied that there may be messages on the phone that connected him to co-conspirators, while at the same time noting that there was no evidence that it was anything but an individual act. "It is very important for us to know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died," Barr said.
In response, Apple restated the policy it has with respect to accessing iPhones and the one that its CEO Tim Cook very publicly stood by the last time the FBI asked for help cracking iPhones. To crack the phone’s encryption, Apple argues, it would need to develop a backdoor in the software; a backdoor that could then be found and used by others.
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” Apple stated. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations.We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”
The iGiant went further than that though and implied that the FBI and Barr have an agenda and are trying to wrong-foot the biz.
“The FBI only notified us on January 6th that they needed additional assistance a month after the attack occurred,” Apple stated. “Only then did we learn about the existence of a second iPhone associated with the investigation and the FBI’s inability to access either iPhone.”
It goes on: “It was not until January 8th that we received a subpoena for information related to the second iPhone,which we responded to within hours. Early outreach is critical to accessing information and finding additional options.”
It was worth noting that the FBI provided details about the second iPhone to the press at the same time it sent them to Apple, suggesting a calculated strategy to put pressure on Apple.
The FBI only talks to the press when it wants to. The fact that a subpoena arrived two days later, when the issue was already being discussed and written about - including by this site - points to some kind of strategy on the part of Barr and the FBI.
We noted last week that the request looks designed to bypass a number of shortcomings in an earlier FBI request to unlock a different iPhone. That request became the center of a very public impasse between law enforcement and Apple as well as a special inquiry report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general.
As such it looks as though the FBI has worked to create as clean a test case as possible - and this week the Attorney General formally added his backing to it. Where it goes from here is uncertain. The FBI and Attorney General have tended to maintain a degree of strategic planning and so this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
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The FBI may have hoped that Apple would be swayed by public pressure to reverse its position - though that seems unlikely given Cook’s determined stance in the past.
Barr could try to turn it into a legal case, setting up an almighty legal battle between citizens’ rights and governmental authority that would be certain to reach the Supreme Court. That would be a risky move, especially given recent rulings on privacy and digital devices (Riley and Carpenter being the two key cases.)
Or the FBI and Barr may be teeing up a battle in Congress for new legislation that would legally oblige Apple to grant access to its devices when presented with a search warrant. That would also be a tall ask, although not impossible if Barr can make the case that Apple is standing in the way of proper investigation of terrorist activities, especially if President Trump wins re-election.
It’s impossible to know beyond the fact that there is clearly a plan and Apple is prepared to fight it. ®