Apple ditched plans to fully encrypt its iCloud backups two years ago after being pressured by the FBI, it is claimed.
The decision reportedly came after the iPhone giant notified the Feds that it intended to offer users end-to-end encryption for photos, messages, and other data stored on iCloud. Under this plan, Apple would no longer have the key to unlock encrypted data, meaning it would no longer be able provide decrypted backups of its users to the authorities, even under court order.
Crime investigators turn to iCloud backups for evidence when they can't unlock suspects' phones. Encrypting the contents of these backups would thwart such probing.
However, Apple apparently dropped the plan after talks with FBI: the g-men argued the move would prevent the agency from gathering vital evidence. Some data, such as passwords and health information, is apparently encrypted in iCloud, it is understood, though the vast majority is not.
The climb-down also came shortly after Apple's high-profile 2016 court battle with the FBI over an iPhone used by the San Bernardino mass murderer who shot and killed 14 people the previous year.
"They decided they weren't going to poke the bear anymore," a former Apple employee told Reuters, adding that the Silicon Valley goliath did not want to open itself up to criticism that it was protecting criminals with encrypted backups, be sued for moving data out of reach of government agencies, or trigger fresh legislation against encryption.
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Two former FBI officials, who were not present in the talks with Apple, said the Cupertino titan was convinced by arguments that backups provided essential evidence in thousands of cases.
"It's because Apple was convinced," one of the officials told Reuters. "Outside of that public spat over San Bernardino, Apple gets along with the federal government."
Another former Apple employee said it was possible the encryption project was dropped for other reasons, such as concern that punters would accidentally lock themselves out of their backups with Apple unable to help them.
Apple is again under pressure from the FBI to unlock the iPhones used by a Saudi Air Force officer who shot dead three Americans at a naval base in Florida last month.
As expected, President Trump piled on, accusing Apple on Twitter of refusing to unlock phones used by "killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements." Republican and Democratic senators have threatened to legislate against end-to-end encryption, saying the tech hampers the gathering of evidence when investigating crimes against children.
Apple earlier rejected the characterization that it "has not provided substantive assistance." Apple and the FBI declined to comment on today's revelations. ®