The fight for privacy between Apple and the White House was reignited this week when Attorney General William Barr publicly accused Apple of not doing enough to help the FBI access a mass shooter’s cellphones.
Mohammed Alshamrani, a visiting officer in the Saudi air force, killed three people and wounded others before he was shot dead by authorities.
Barr on Monday declared the shooting an “act of terrorism” and said Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology.
He said the FBI asked Apple last week to help unlock two iPhones used by the shooter. Apple has refused the request, however, citing a long-standing view that breaking encryption on a single phone would compromise all users’ privacy.
The dispute is a close parallel to a standoff between Apple and the Obama administration in 2015 in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
At the time, the FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone used by gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. The agency said it couldn’t access the phone’s contents because it had a passcode and asked Apple to build a “backdoor” iOS operating system that could bypass iPhone security features.
A federal judge in California publicly ordered Apple to assist the FBI, but Apple refused, saying the measure would “threaten the security of our customers” and had “implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”
The company’s refusal set the stage for a clash between the tech world and law enforcement over user privacy.
The FBI sued Apple for defying the court order, prompting protests around the country in support of Apple.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the FBI, later said publicly that the government paid $900,000 to an undisclosed party to unlock the phone.
But Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, told The New York Times in 2016 that the battle over access to digital data was not over.
“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” she said.
The stage set for the battle to repeat
It’s unclear what will happen in the Pensacola case. Apple has disputed Barr’s assertion that it hasn’t helped, saying it has given authorities gigabytes of data like iCloud backups and payment information.
It says it won’t, however, do anything about encryption.
“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” it said in a statement. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.
“Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations. We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”
The American Civil Liberties Union rallied behind Apple, saying that breaking its policy for the US government could enable bad actors elsewhere.
“There is simply no way for Apple, or any other company, to provide the FBI access to encrypted communications without also providing it to authoritarian foreign governments and weakening our defenses against criminals and hackers,” Jennifer Granick, an ACLU spokeswoman on cybersecurity issues, said in an emailed statement to Business Insider.
Still, it appears the FBI will not back down easily this time. According to The New York Times, officials said the FBI approached Apple only after asking other government agencies, foreign governments, and third-party technology vendors for help.
“We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Barr said on Monday.
“We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”