Attorney General William Barr today requested Apple’s help in unlocking two iPhones connected to last month’s shooting at a Pensacola naval base, and said that Apple has provided no “substantive assistance” unlocking the phones. It’s a characterization that Apple rejects. The FBI requested Apple’s help unlocking the same phones last week.
In his remarks today, Barr said that the FBI had received court authorization to search both iPhones, one of which had been shot at by the shooter and the other which had been damaged. Barr said the FBI was able to fix the phones, but stated that the phones are “engineered to make it virtually impossible to unlock without the password,” which is why the FBI needs Apple’s help to unlock them. He called on both Apple and other tech companies to “help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of American people and prevent future attacks.”
In an emailed statement, Apple said it rejects Barr’s characterization that it has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. It also shared some details about its responses to the FBI’s requests for help.
Here is how the company says it responded to the FBI’s requests in December:
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.
Apple also said that the FBI only recently asked for more assistance — presumably to help unlock the phones:
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.
Apple’s statement noted that the company’s engineering teams recently had a call with the FBI to “provide additional technical assistance,” but it’s unclear what sort of technical assistance that might refer to.
Apple is able to provide law enforcement iCloud device backups that are on its servers, as it says it has in this investigation, but it cannot unlock someone’s iPhone without the user’s passcode, like the FBI wants the company to do in this case. The company has said in the past that it’s technically impossible to do so without making a backdoor that could compromise the security of every iPhone owner. It reiterated that position in its statement today, saying:
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.
In 2016, Apple refused a similar request from the FBI to unlock an iPhone linked to the San Bernardino shooting, which led to a months-long and very public legal fight. The FBI wanted Apple to make an encryption-free version of iOS that could be installed on that phone so that the FBI could access what was on the device. The FBI eventually found a vendor that could help it unlock the phone and withdrew its case.
Update January 13th, 10:59PM ET: Added statements and information shared by Apple.