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Why Attorney General Bill Barr is mad at Apple

The FBI didn’t need Apple’s help to crack a suspected terrorist’s iPhone, but it’s demanding it anyway.

Bill Barr looks mad.
Trump’s attorney general thinks it’s time for a “legislative solution” that would give the federal government more control over private companies.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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Months after claiming that the FBI needed Apple’s assistance to unlock a suspected terrorist’s iPhones, Attorney General Bill Barr announced on Monday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to unlock the phones on its own. In a statement that could serve as a harbinger of government-mandated privacy invasions to come, Barr harshly criticized Apple and called for a “legislative solution” to its obstinance.

“Thanks to the great work of the FBI — and no thanks to Apple — we were able to unlock Alshamrani’s phones,” Barr said in a press release.

The phones belonged to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who killed three people on a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, in December. During its investigation into Alshamrani’s possible links to terrorist groups, the FBI uncovered two locked iPhones. As it did in 2016 during the investigation of another person with possible terrorist ties, the Department of Justice demanded that Apple unlock the phones for them. Apple has repeatedly said that it does not currently have the ability to unlock passcode-protected phones and that creating a backdoor that would allow the company to access locked devices would compromise the security and privacy on which its customers rely.

In this most recent case, Apple was not able to unlock the phones, although the company said that it gave the FBI access to any and all information related to Alshamrani that it had, including iCloud backups of Alshamrani’s phones.

“The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security,” Apple said in a statement to Recode. “It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

Apple added, “There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.”

While stating that the information uncovered by unlocking the phones proved valuable to the investigation and showed that Alshamrani did indeed have links to al-Qaeda, Barr stressed that Apple’s refusal to change its business practices cost precious time and money.

“If not for our FBI’s ingenuity, some luck, and hours upon hours of time and resources, this information would have remained undiscovered,” Barr said. “The bottom line: Our national security cannot remain in the hands of big corporations who put dollars over lawful access and public safety. The time has come for a legislative solution.”

Barr raising the legislative solution specter is well-timed. A bipartisan bill called the EARN IT Act, which would essentially force platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and even end-to-end encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Signal to give the government a backdoor to any and all customer information is currently making its way through the Senate. There’s also the bill reauthorizing the Patriot Act, for which a painfully close Senate vote defeated an attempt to exclude web search history and browser information from warrantless surveillance by the FBI. The bill, once resolved by the House and Senate, will go to President Trump’s desk to sign.

Forcing Apple to create a backdoor would perhaps make investigations easier and quicker for the FBI, but it’s not absolutely necessary to conduct investigations. The FBI didn’t say how it was able to gain access to the phones, but the agency clearly didn’t need Apple’s help to do so. This has been the case in past investigations as well. The Department of Justice is asking a company to change its business practices and create a vulnerability in millions of its customers’ devices for what amounts to a shortcut.

“Every time there’s a traumatic event requiring investigation into digital devices, the Justice Department loudly claims that it needs backdoors to encryption, and then quietly announces it actually found a way to access information without threatening the security and privacy of the entire world,” ACLU senior staff attorney Brett Max Kaufman said in a statement to Recode. “The boy who cried wolf has nothing on the agency that cried encryption.”

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