The DOJ has asked somewhat politely for Apple to break the encryption on some iPhones. Last time, the request wasn’t so polite. It involved a legal battle that only ended when a third-party cracked the San Bernardino’s iPhone for the FBI. Nothing of interest was recovered from that phone.
Another shooting and another dead shooter has brought Apple and the DOJ together again. The DOJ’s counsel sent a letter to Apple asking it to break into two phones recovered from the shooter. Apple stated it had already given the DOJ all the information it could recover without actually cracking the devices. This isn’t good enough for the DOJ, which believes the possession of a warrant should trump any concerns about creating encryption backdoors.
There’s been no demand made in court… yet. But Attorney General Bill Barr — whose antipathy towards encryption has been stated multiple times — is trying to apply a little more extrajudicial pressure.
Attorney General William P. Barr declared on Monday that a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla., was an act of terrorism, and he asked Apple in an unusually high-profile request to provide access to two phones used by the gunman.[…]
“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence,” Mr. Barr said, calling on technology companies to find a solution and complaining that Apple had provided no “substantive assistance.”
It actually illustrates nothing of the sort. “Substantive evidence” is unlikely to be found on the shooter’s phones. While the DOJ has pointed to evidence the shooter was “radicalized” on social media, it can only speculate about what evidence can be recovered from the phones, one of which partially destroyed by a deputy’s bullet during the shootout with the gunman.
The DOJ’s assertions undercut Bill Barr’s claims that Apple has provided “no substantive assistance.” Barr said that the evidence the DOJ already has shows the “shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology.” This is based on social media messages and other content recovered by the DOJ, some of it likely from Apple itself.
There’s not much of a case to be built against a dead man. And there’s probably some value in mining contacts and text messages, but it’s dubious to claim the evidence that might reside on the locked devices will be a game changer for the FBI or result in new leads that could prevent future shootings.
Nevertheless, the Attorney General insists Apple is preventing law enforcement from doing its job. According to Barr, a warrant is all anyone should need to see to start cracking open cellphones for the FBI.
Mr. Barr indicated that he is ready for a sharp fight. “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,” he said. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”
This is the leverage. Any tragedy with an iPhone in the mix is fodder for the DOJ’s anti-encryption efforts. Third-party services can help the FBI achieve what Barr says it wants to achieve: speedy recovery of evidence from locked devices. But Barr and the agencies he represents only want outside help from the courts — precedent that will make all cellphone users less safe in the name of securing the nation.
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