Apple reportedly backed off encrypting iCloud data after pressure from the FBI

Apple reportedly backed off encrypting iCloud data after pressure from the FBI thumbnail
The FBI and Apple, best of frienemies
The FBI and Apple, best of frienemies

Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

By Marcus Gilmer

A new report suggests that Apple previously dropped a large-scale user encryption plan due to pressure from the FBI.

The news comes as Apple is mired in a spat with law enforcement over access to iPhones that belonged to the suspect in the December 2019 shooting at a U.S. Naval base in Pensacola, Florida. 

According to the report from Reuters, Apple alerted the FBI a few years ago that the company “planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud.” That meant that Apple would no longer be able to access a user’s encrypted backup data and turn it over to law enforcement.

This prompted an outcry from the FBI, sources told Reuters, and when the two entities met again a year later, Apple had dropped the plan. According to Reuters, a former Apple employed claimed the company, “did not want to risk being attacked by public officials for protecting criminals, sued for moving previously accessible data out of reach of government agencies or used as an excuse for new legislation against encryption.”

While an exact timeline of the back-and-forth isn’t detailed by Reuters, it does appear it was affected by the very public battle between the two sides in 2016 over access to an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino shooter. 

In that case, the FBI found its own way into the phone, and dropped a court order it brought against Apple for refusing to access the phone’s data. 

The government knows all about devices and companies that can unlock iPhones. Most notably, in 2019 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inked an $820,000 deal with Greykey, creators of an iPhone-hacking tool, that would allow the agency to search phones obtained from undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

One person told Reuters that after the 2016 fight with the FBI, Apple “decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore.” Another noted that, “Outside of that public spat over San Bernardino, Apple gets along with the federal government.”

Indeed, in both the first and second halves of 2018, Apple granted about 80 percent of the U.S. government’s request for data. 

In this most recent dust-up, Apple stuck to the claim it laid out in 2016: that a backdoor for law enforcement doesn’t exist, and creating one could give bad actors access to user data, too. (Experts agree.) Additionally, the company claimed that it has, in fact, helped out the government with the Pensacola case even if it’s not exactly the way the FBI, Attorney General William Barr, and President Donald Trump want. 

Reuters notes that Apple still uses end-to-end encryption to protect a portion of user data, like passwords and health data, but that contact and messaging information remains accessible via iCloud backups. 

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on the story and will update if we hear back. 

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