A New York Times report claims that Apple is preparing to fight the Justice Department and defend encryption on iPhones. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has assembled a handful of top advisers for this job.
This move by Tim Cook comes amidst a statement from Attorney General William Barr who criticized Apple for not providing any “substantive assistance” in the case of unlocking two iPhones of a Florida shooter.
Apple, on its part, was quick to issue a lengthy statement saying it complied with the government request within hours and turned over gigabytes of data to them. Apple has also been criticized publicly by U.S. President Donald Trump for not unlocking iPhones of killers, drug dealers, etc.
Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.
This team inside Apple is now working on a resolution that does not force Apple to create a backdoor in its products.
This is not the first time that Apple has found itself at odds with law enforcement agencies and the U.S. government on unlocking an iPhone of a shooter. In 2016, the company was pressurized to unlock the iPhone 5c of the San Bernardino shooter which it did not do. Ultimately, the FBI took the help of hackers to unlock the device.
This time around though, the problem is that the Donald Trump-led government is very unpredictable. A strong stance against this government could potentially land Apple in huge trouble.
Another thing to note is that the Florida shooter’s iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 can be unlocked using third-party tools from companies like Grayshift and Cellebrite. Both companies offer tools that can bypass a locked iPhone and dump their filesystem. In fact, the FBI has regularly used Grayshift’s tool to get into locked iPhones for investigation purposes.
In the Florida case, the FBI said that it has exhausted all its options in trying to access the shooter’s iPhone which is why it reached out to Apple.
The problem is that the shooter’s iPhones were allegedly damaged by a bullet. The FBI fixed the iPhones in a lab so they turn on now, but they have been unable to bypass its encryption. A former Apple executive said that any damage that prevented third-party tools from working will also be a problem for Apple.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It’s a simple, ‘front-door’ request: Will Apple help us get into the shooter’s phones or not?”
Apple does not have a backdoor in its products so it possibly cannot help the FBI here. The above statement from the Justice Department’s spokeswoman might seem like a simple one but the reality is a bit different. Data is encrypted to save it from prying eyes and protect users’ privacy and there’s only one key to decrypt it which in this case is the unlock code of the iPhone.