Apple reignites privacy battle with Trump administration over shooting

Apple reignites privacy battle with Trump administration over shooting

Apple reignites privacy battle with Trump administration over shooting


  • Attorney General William Barr reignited a feud between Apple and the US government over its refusal to let officials access encrypted data on iPhones.
  • He said Apple wasn’t doing enough to help the FBI access two phones used by Mohammed Alshamrani, the Saudi officer who opened fire in December on a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
  • Barr said the FBI needed encrypted information from Alshamrani’s iPhones to properly investigate the shooting, which officials on Monday declared was an act of terrorism.
  • Apple said it had helped as much as it could but would never code a “backdoor” to allow law enforcement access to users’ encrypted information.
  • The argument is effectively a replay of a 2015 struggle between Apple and the Obama administration, which wanted to access a cellphone after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
  • Apple has said such backdoors would make all users’ phones vulnerable to bad actors.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The fight for privacy between Apple and the White House was reignited this week when Attorney General William Barr publicly accused Apple of not doing enough to help the FBI access a mass shooter’s cellphones.

Barr told reporters on Monday that Apple had given “no substantive assistance” to the investigation into the December 6 shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.

Mohammed Alshamrani, a visiting officer in the Saudi air force, killed three people and wounded others before he was shot dead by authorities.

Barr on Monday declared the shooting an “act of terrorism” and said Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology.

He said the FBI asked Apple last week to help unlock two iPhones used by the shooter. Apple has refused the request, however, citing a long-standing view that breaking encryption on a single phone would compromise all users’ privacy.

The dispute is a close parallel to a standoff between Apple and the Obama administration in 2015 in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

An epochal clash over the limits of privacy

iphone privacy

A protester with an iPhone that says “No Entry” outside the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City in 2016.
Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

The San Bernardino shooting took place at a social-services agency and left 16 people dead, including the two shooters.

At the time, the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone used by gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. The agency said it couldn’t access the phone’s contents because it had a passcode and asked Apple to build a “backdoor” iOS operating system that could bypass iPhone security features.

A federal judge in California publicly ordered Apple to assist the FBI, but Apple refused, saying the measure would “threaten the security of our customers” and had “implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

The company’s refusal set the stage for a clash between the tech world and law enforcement over user privacy.

The FBI sued Apple for defying the court order, prompting protests around the country in support of Apple.

The clash ended inconclusively, however, when the FBI dismissed its suit because it had found a way to unlock the iPhone without help from Apple.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the FBI, later said publicly that the government paid $900,000 to an undisclosed party to unlock the phone.

But Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, told The New York Times in 2016 that the battle over access to digital data was not over.

“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” she said.

The stage set for the battle to repeat

pensacola naval air station shooting

Naval Air Station Pensacola seen after the December 6 shooting.
Getty Images/Josh Brasted

It’s unclear what will happen in the Pensacola case. Apple has disputed Barr’s assertion that it hasn’t helped, saying it has given authorities gigabytes of data like iCloud backups and payment information.

It says it won’t, however, do anything about encryption.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” it said in a statement. “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 American Civil Liberties Union rallied behind Apple, saying that breaking its policy for the US government could enable bad actors elsewhere.

“There is simply no way for Apple, or any other company, to provide the FBI access to encrypted communications without also providing it to authoritarian foreign governments and weakening our defenses against criminals and hackers,” Jennifer Granick, an ACLU spokeswoman on cybersecurity issues, said in an emailed statement to Business Insider.

Still, it appears the FBI will not back down easily this time. According to The New York Times, officials said the FBI approached Apple only after asking other government agencies, foreign governments, and third-party technology vendors for help.

“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Barr said on Monday.

“We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”


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