Apple is offering the FBI ‘no substantive assistance’ in unlocking two iPhones related to a shooting case, says Attorney General Barr

Tim Cook at the European Union's privacy conference in Brussels.

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Tim Cook at the European Union’s privacy conference in Brussels.
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Yves Herman/Reuters
  • Attorney General William Barr told reporters Monday that Apple has given the FBI “no substantive assistance” in its investigation into a deadly shooting last month at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.
  • The FBI has asked for Apple’s help unlocking two iPhones used by the shooter, a request Apple has refused.
  • Apple rejected Barr’s characterization, telling Business Insider that its “responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”
  • Apple previously refused a similar request from the FBI following a deadly shooting in San Bernardino, California, setting off a fierce public debate over whether the company should be required to offer the government tools to counter its own encryption technology.
  • Barr’s statement Monday indicated that the FBI and Apple are still at odds over the issue, which the company has framed as a matter of preserving users’ privacy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Attorney General William Barr told reporters in a press conference Monday that, “so far, Apple has not given any substantive assistance” to the FBI in its investigation into a deadly shooting at Pensacola, Florida, Naval Air Station.

The FBI sent a letter to Apple on January 8 asking for its help unlocking two iPhones used by the shooter. On Monday, Barr said that Apple has refused that request.

“We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing,” Apple said in a statement to Business Insider.

Apple also said it has produced “a wide variety of information associated with the investigation… including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.”

This is not the first time Apple and the FBI have butt heads on the issue.

In 2015, Apple refused a similar request from the agency to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino case, on the grounds that doing so would require Apple to give the FBI tools to counter the company’s encryption, creating a “backdoor” that could be used to access other devices. The FBI ended up suing Apple for defying the court order, though it ultimately dropped the case after finding a private company to help it unlock the phone.

Agency officials have repeatedly criticized tech companies’ use of encryption, saying that it prevents law enforcement from following leads and obtaining evidence that could aid in an investigation.

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence once it has obtained a court order based on probable cause,” Barr said during the press conference Monday.

In its statement to Business Insider, Apple defended its use of encryption, saying: “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.”

Civil rights and privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have praised Apple’s stance, arguing that allowing law enforcement access to devices could pose risks for activists, journalists, and persecuted minorities in countries with oppressive regimes.

“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,” the ACLU said in an emailed statement to Business Insider.

Read Apple’s full statement below:

We were devastated to learn of the tragic terrorist attack on members of the US armed services at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida on December 6th. We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and routinely work with police across the country on their investigations. When law enforcement requests our assistance, our teams work around the clock to provide them with the information we have. We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing. Within hours of the FBI’s 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. We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York. 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 FBI only notified us on January 6th that they needed additional assistance – a month after the attack occurred. 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 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. We are continuing to work with the FBI, and our engineering teams recently had a call to provide additional technical assistance. Apple has great respect for the Bureau’s work, and we will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation. We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. 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.

Read the ACLU’s full statement below:

“Like four years ago, the government’s demand would weaken the security of millions of iPhones, and is dangerous and unconstitutional. Strong encryption enables religious minorities facing genocide, like the Uyghurs in China, and journalists investigating powerful drug cartels in Mexico, to communicate safely with each other, knowledgeable sources, and the outside world. 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.”