DOJ Steps Up Pressure on Apple to Unlock Saudi Terror Suspect’s iPhone

DOJ Steps Up Pressure on Apple to Unlock Saudi Terror Suspect's iPhone thumbnail

US Attorney General, William Barr (L), and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich (R) hold a press conference, regarding the December 2019 shooting at the Pensacola Naval air station in Florida, at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on January 13, 2020.
Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (Getty

Apple is facing escalating demands from the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) to assist authorities investigating the deadly shooting at a naval airbase in Pensacola, Florida, last month, which is now being treated as an act of terrorism.

At a press conference on Monday, Attorney General William P. Barr issued a public plea for Apple to help unlock an iPhone belonging to the suspect, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force, who was participating in a training program at the airbase in early December when he allegedly killed three people and wounded eight others.

“We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks,” Barr said.

Barr’s appeal follows last week’s news that FBI General Counsel Dana Boente wrote to Apple and requested its assistance in unlocking the suspect’s iPhone, which is protected by strong encryption. Apple has said it already provided the FBI with “all of the data” in its possession related to Alshamrani.

DOJ announced Monday that the 21-year-old suspected shooter was motivated by “jihadist ideology,” informing its decision to consider the incident an act of terrorism.

It was previously reported that now-deleted social media posts ascribed to Alshamrani were critical of U.S. support for Israel and painted the U.S. as anti-Muslim.

The Pentagon said it had ejected 21 other Saudi military students from the U.S., citing anti-American content on social media. Barr told reporters that in some cases the students had “some kind of contact with child pornography.”

Barr said Monday that at some point during the attack, Alshamrani fired a single round into one of his phones in what may have been an attempt to destroy evidence. A second phone recovered from the scene was also damaged.

Authorities have managed to get both devices to work, Barr said, but have been unable to bypass the security on either.

Apple did not yet respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

The FBI has long argued that strong consumer encryption interferes with law enforcement’s ability to gather evidence in the wake of such attacks, a problem it calls “going dark.” Federal lawmakers supporting the FBI’s position have called on Apple to create a “back door” into the devices.

Apple, which has increasingly marketed itself as a protector of user privacy, says the iPhone is designed in such a way that not even the company can bypass its encryption. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said publicly he believes there’s no way to grant law enforcement special access to its devices “without making it easier for the bad guys to break in.”

Renowned cryptographers, including Johns Hopkins associate professor Matthew Green, have sided with Apple publicly, asserting any attempt to weaken encryption solutions available to consumers will only aid criminal hackers who seek the same access as the FBI.

The FBI previously sought a court order aimed at forcing Apple to unlock the cellphone of another terror suspect—Syed Rizwan Farook, the deceased shooter in the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, California. It eventually paid a private security company—reportedly Israeli firm Cellebrite—to unlock the device.

Senator Ron Wyden, a leading privacy hawk in Congress, has criticized the FBI over its repeated attempts to compel Apple’s cooperation.

In a 2017 letter to FBI Director Chris Wray, Wyden wrote: “Regardless of whether the [FBI] labels vulnerability by design a backdoor, a front door, or a ‘secure golden key,’ it is a flawed policy that would harm American security, liberty, and our economy.”

Update, 5:50pm: Senator Ron Wyden, who is cited above previously criticizing the FBI’s arguments for outfitting consumer devices like iPhones with encryption backdoors, sent Gizmodo the following statement about Attorney General Barr’s remarks:

“Someone accused of serious ethics violations for rubber-stamping an illegal bulk surveillance program is the last person who should be calling for government backdoors into every Americans’ phone. If William Barr and Donald Trump succeed in weakening encryption with a back door, they’ll also make it far easier for criminals and hackers and predators to get into the digital life of you and your family. If there were a backdoor in American phones, terrorists and criminals would surely shift to foreign encryption services outside the reach of American law enforcement.”

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