FBI director says Feds still can’t unlock iPhone in Pensacola shooting case

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FBI director says Feds still can't unlock iPhone in Pensacola shooting case
FBI wants Apple to help it unlock handset.
Photo: Dave Newman/Flickr CC

FBI director Christopher Wray says that the Feds are still unable to access the encrypted data on an iPhone belonging to the shooter responsible for killing three Americans at a Pensacola, Florida naval base in late 2019.

The FBI says that it has reconstructed the phone after it was damaged. But it still can’t access the information on the handset itself.

Wray made the disclosure at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. He said that the FBI is, “currently engaged with Apple hoping to see if we can get better help from them so we can get access to that phone.”

The Pensacola shooting case has shined a new spotlight on the ongoing debate around encryption. The Feds asked Apple’s help in unlocking two iPhones involved in the case. It’s not clear from the report which of the two handsets the FBI is having issues with.

Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not cooperating in the investigation. Apple denied the allegations, saying it had — and was — cooperating.

President Trump also chimed in, calling for Apple to “step up to the plate” by helping unlock the devices. Trump argued that the U.S. government helps Apple on trade and other issues. In return, he said, Apple should help it unlock handsets used by, “killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.”

FBI director wants to break iPhone in Pensacola shooting

Bloomberg, which reported FBI director Christopher Wray’s words, notes one more wrinkle in the story. While there is public pressure for Apple to help unlock the iPhones in the case, it points out that experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics think the FBI has the ability to unlock the devices without Apple’s input. This is what happened during a similar previous case involving a shooting in San Bernardino, California.

If the FBI is able to access the devices without Apple’s assistance, this could be an attempt to pressure Apple to create a backdoor which can be used more generally. Tim Cook warned against this in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting incident. In an email to Apple employees at the time he wrote that:

“This case is about much more than a single phone or a single investigation, so when we received the government’s order we knew we had to speak out. At stake is the data security of hundreds of millions of law-abiding people, and setting a dangerous precedent that threatens everyone’s civil liberties.”

Source: Bloomberg