FBI cracks alleged al-Qaida shooter’s iPhone without Apple’s help

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FBI director says Feds still can't unlock iPhone in Pensacola shooting case
F.B.I. cracks iPhone, with little help from Apple.
Photo: Dave Newman/Flickr CC

U.S. authorities have reportedly broken through the encryption on one of the iPhones belonging to a mass shooter without the help of Apple who refused to create a backdoor saying it violated privacy rights.

CNN reported Monday that the FBI defeated the password on the iPhone belonging to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi military trainee who went on a mass shooting at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida last December killing four and injuring eight.

CNN said Alshamrani had been in touch with a suspected al Qaeda operative, according to multiple US officials briefed on the matter, after U.S. investigators uncovered the al Qaeda connection by breaking through the encryption protecting the Saudi attacker’s iPhone.

As CNN reported:

A breakthrough on the shooter’s phone encryption for now temporarily disarms a standoff between the Justice Department and Apple over national security and the limits of encryption and privacy. The government has complained in recent years that stronger encryption, without the ability of law enforcement to get court-ordered access to data, endangers the public.

Back and forth with Apple

In early January, the FBI demanded Apple cooperate in gaining access to the iPhones. Attorney General William Barr asked Apple to provide access to two phones used by the gunman saying that Apple had provided no “substantive assistance” so far and indicated that he’s ready for a fight regarding the issue.

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence,” said Mr. Barr, according to the New York Times.

Law enforcement officials have been critical of Apple’s stance on privacy and encryption dating back to 2015 when the FBI got a court order demanding Apple unlock a dead terrorist’s iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook refused to comply on the grounds that creating a backdoor into iOS would make hundreds of millions of devices vulnerable to attackers.

The Justice Department wanted to unlock the iPhones to gain access to messages in Signal or WhatsApp to see if the shooter acted alone or if it was part of a coordinated attack. Alshamrani was supposedly trying to destroy his phones during the shooting, making them a high priority to investigators.

Apple’s position

Apple later denied it wasn’t cooperating with the FBI In a statement, the iPhone maker said “our responses to [the federal governments] many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”

In response to several legal requests, the statement read that the company provided a “wide variety of information” when first contacted by law enforcement last December, “including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts,” Apple officials wrote.

“We have the greatest respect for law enforcement and have always worked cooperatively to help in their investigations. When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago, we gave them all of the data in our possession, and we will continue to support them with the data we have available.

“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,” the statement read.