At a recent press conference, the heads of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that they had succeeded in unlocking two iPhones without Cupertino’s help. But, as headline writers noticed, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray mainly used the event to slam the tech company for refusing to give law enforcement a “backdoor” into encrypted devices.
The two iPhones underlying this latest dispute belonged to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the gunman who carried out a terrorist shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Station in December 2019. “Thanks to the great work of the FBI—and no thanks to Apple—we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said. As The Verge notes, he also blasted the months and “large sums of tax-payer dollars” involved in the effort.
Apple disputes the claim that it hasn’t helped. As CNBC reports, the company said it handed over “gigabytes of information,” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” But, Apple maintained its opposition to unlocking encrypted devices, which became a flashpoint between investigators and the company in 2016 over a shooting in San Bernardino, California.
At the press conference, Barr seemed to hint at what might have been the real purpose of the event: championing a bill in Congress that would force Apple’s hand. “The developments in this case demonstrate the need for a legislative solution,” he said, adding that Americans must make a choice “through their representatives.”
The press conference came as a vote loomed in the House of Representatives for the EARN IT Act, which would vastly expand the federal government’s powers over online platforms and their users. According to TechCrunch, the bill “risks undermining encryption right when a population forced by COVID-19 to do everything online from home can least afford it.”
Federal investigators were ultimately able to access the Pensacola shooter’s phones without a backdoor. “The idea that iPhones are ‘unhackable’ is obsolete,” Johns Hopkins University cryptographer Matthew Green told Wired. “We all need to adjust our expectations accordingly—particularly when governments demand that firms break or weaken their encryption.”