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DOJ says Apple hasn’t helped unlock Pensacola shooter’s iPhones. Apple denies it.

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House subcommittee in his first appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Apple disputed Attorney General William Barr’s statement that the company hasn’t helped federal investigators unlock two iPhones used by the Saudi shooter who killed three people at a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, last month.

Barr made the statement Monday as he announced the shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola was an “act of terrorism.”

In a statement released late Monday night, Apple said it started helping investigators “within hours of the FBI’s first request” on Dec. 6, the day the Saudi pilot, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani, fired on service members at the base.

“The FBI only notified us on January 6th that they needed additional assistance — a month after the attack occurred,” Apple said. “Only then did we learn about the existence of a second iPhone associated with the investigation and the FBI’s inability to access either iPhone.”

Barr’s comments — and Apple’s lengthy rebuttal — rekindled a longstanding dispute between the company and law enforcement over cracking encrypted passwords on suspects’ iPhones, which has implications for consumers’ privacy.

Barr: ‘Apple has not given us any substantive assistance’

During a news conference Monday, Barr said investigators recovered two heavily-damaged iPhones from the deceased shooter. The gunman is believed to have shot one of them in an effort to render it unusable.

Investigators rebuilt both phones, but they have been unable to bypass the encrypted passwords to gain access to the data.

“We have asked Apple for their help in unlocking the shooter’s iPhones,” Barr said. “So far, Apple has not given us any substantive assistance. This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause.”

In its statement, Apple said, “We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation. Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing.”

In addition to the FBI’s initial request the day of the shooting, Apple said it responded to six more legal requests for information between Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. The company said it provided iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.

“We responded to each request promptly, often within hours, sharing information with FBI offices in Jacksonville, Pensacola and New York,” the company said. “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.”

Apple said it received a subpoena regarding the second iPhone on Jan. 8, “which we responded to within hours.”

The company didn’t say what response it provided.

Barr made his comments in a news conference describing the Justice Department’s investigation into the shooting by the 21-year-old Saudi pilot.

The pilot, who was part of a U.S. training program for the Saudi military, was killed in the rampage. Three American service members were killed and eight others were injured.

Investigators found that on Sept. 11 last year, the shooter posted on social media that “the countdown has begun.” He visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend, and he posted “anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi messages” on social media two hours before the attack, Barr said.

Days after the attack, the Navy grounded more than 300 Saudi nationals who were training to be pilots. Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist ordered Defense intelligence officials to review and strengthen vetting procedures.

Dispute mirrors one after San Bernardino attack

Barr’s rebuke of Apple in the Pensacola investigation mirrors a standoff between the FBI and the technology giant involving an iPhone recovered in a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 people dead.

In that case, the FBI went to federal court with a demand that Apple assist investigators in gaining access to a phone recovered from terrorist Syed Farook, who was killed along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, in a shootout with authorities following the attack.

The FBI dropped its challenge after it secured the assistance of an outside contractor who was successful in bypassing the iPhone passcode.

That effort was led by James Comey, the director of the FBI at the time. He argued that the bureau sought access to the particular phone used by the San Bernardino attacker, and it didn’t want to establish a sweeping precedent to gain access to all encrypted devices.

Apple and other U.S. tech companies feared that the FBI’s litigation would set a dangerous precedent that would open the door to scores of local, state and federal law enforcement officials seeking to compel companies to build backdoors in their devices and software in order to circumvent encryption.

In arguing for the access, Comey told a House panel in 2016 that the FBI had extensive negotiations with Apple before filing the litigation.

“They were very helpful, by the way,” Comey said. “I want to be sure people understand there are no demons in this dispute or the larger dispute (about encryption). Apple has been very cooperative. We just got to a place where they were not willing to offer the relief that the government was asking for.”

Apple, which has touted its privacy protections for consumers, addressed the larger debate in its statement Monday night.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company said. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

Barr declined to say whether the Justice Department would file a similar suit against the technology giant.


© 2020 USA Today