A case backed by Attorney General William Barr is escalating quickly at the Department of Justice that will once again pit Apple against the federal government in a fight over smartphone privacy. The DoJ has asked Apple to help it gain access to two iPhones that belonged to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the suspected gunman in the December 6 shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida.
Much as the company did in 2016 following a similar request in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, Apple is intending to push back by any legal means necessary in order not to comply with the government's request. As the New York Times reports, the speed of this case is frustrating Apple executives because they don't believe that the government has invested adequate time or resources into trying to hack the phones themselves, and are seizing on this case to further larger motives held by Barr.
The devices in question are an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, and experts are balking at the government's handling of the case in part because the iPhone 5 in particular can already be easily hacked using tools created by third-party firms like Cellebrite and Grayshift. The phone used in the San Bernardino case, an iPhone 5C, was even newer than that model.
In early 2016, as Apple fended off FBI requests to hack the iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, the government ended up paying Israel-based Cellebrite to do the work for them. Within a week, Cellebrite had cracked the phone, and the government dropped its case against Apple. Edward Snowdon was quick to note on Twitter at the time that the government had been lying for several months when they said it was impossible for them to crack the phone without Apple's help.
Both for reasons of principle and — obviously — marketing, Apple has held firm to their refusal to build a law-enforcement backdoor into any of their devices. The company does, like Facebook and Google, comply with law enforcement requests to access data on its servers, and the Times notes that Apple has complied with "roughly 127,000" such requests over the past seven years.
At issue is whether personal privacy trumps national security, or vice versa, and CEO Tim Cook has said that any such backdoor would simply be exploited beyond the control of Apple or the government if it even existed. "In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession," Cook said in 2016.
Barr stands on the opposite side of the issue and has likely not through the broader implications, because he's a law man. He gave a speech in October on this very topic, arguing against the existence of warrant-proof encryption and saying that "While we should not hesitate to deploy encryption to protect ourselves from cybercriminals, this should not be done in a way that eviscerates society’s ability to defend itself against other types of criminal threats." In other words, encrypt against bad hackers who want to, say, take down our power grid, but make sure there's a backdoor — that said hackers theoretically can't find? — so that the FBI can get in when they need to.
President Trump, of course, sees no nuance in this argument, and he tweeted today, "We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements."
We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020
Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel, said in a 2019 interview that he believes Cook has staked his reputation on Apple's stance to hold firm against such encryption-breaking demands, and over several iPhone models, the phones have only become more sophisticated in their security protocols.
NYU Marketing professor and tech pundit Scott Galloway tells the Times that the strategy, regardless of its ethical implications, is "brilliant marketing. "They’re so concerned with your privacy that they’re willing to wave the finger at the F.B.I.,” he says.
But Barr is a new adversary for Cook and Apple, so we'll see how this one plays out.