DoJ, Apple Encryption Backdoor Battle Renewed

A renewed skirmish over iPhone encryption is heating up between Apple and the Department of Justice this week.

On Monday Attorney General William Barr delivered a statement on the criminal investigation into the December 6, 2019 killing of three U.S. service members at Pensacola Naval Air Station that implicated a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Two damaged iPhones belonging to the alleged shooter, Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, were recovered at the scene.

According to Barr, the FBI received court authorization to search both phones (iPhone models 5 and 7) within a day of the shooting. While the agency has been able to restore the phones to functionality, it has been unable to unlock the devices for weeks and “Apple has not given [. . .] any substantive assistance.” 

Tuesday Apple rebuked Barr’s statement with its own, insisting that they had assisted law enforcement by granting the FBI access to the gunman’s iCloud account and providing transaction data for several accounts. “We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York,” stated Apple. “The queries resulted in many gigabytes of information that we turned over to investigators. In every instance, we responded with all of the information that we had.”

The conflict garnered additional attention when President Trump tweeted on Tuesday night “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  [sic] and other violent criminal elements.”

The controversy years after Apple’s previous court battle over the decryption an iPhone 5C connected to the San Bernadino shooting in 2015. The suit was dropped after the FBI successfully unlocked the phone using a third party.

Apple has long maintained that creating a backdoor to its iOS operating system for law enforcement would lead to security vulnerabilities for all iPhone users, but the position has been met with criticism from both sides of the political aisle. In April 2016 Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein  (D-Calif.) drafted legislation that would force communications companies to include such a backdoor, but the solution was not acceptable to stakeholders and the bill did not proceed. In 2018, Australia successfully passed laws that allow police to force companies to create a backdoor to encrypted data without informing users.  

As of yet, the Department of Justice has not taken any formal action against Apple related to the Pensacola Naval Air Station incident.