cybersecurity

Apple rebukes DOJ over Pensacola iPhone encryption battle

The iPhone maker strongly denied Attorney General William Barr's contention that it had resisted helping the government.

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Apple on Tuesday rejected the Justice Department’s claim that it has refused to help investigators unlock two iPhones that belonged to the shooter in the Pensacola, Fla., naval base attack.

The iPhone maker said that Attorney General William Barr was wrong to claim Monday that the company “has not given us any substantive assistance" in accessing phones associated with the December shooting.

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

The FBI first requested help with an iPhone on the day of the shooting, Apple said, and it responded by sharing “a wide variety” of data. It provided other data, such as iCloud backups, in response to “six additional legal requests” over the course of the next week. “In every instance,” Apple said, “we responded with all of the information that we had.”

The government didn’t tell Apple that it couldn’t access the iPhones until Jan. 6, Apple said. Until then, the company added, it didn’t even know that a second iPhone was in the mix. A subpoena concerning the second phone arrived two days later.

Apple needled the government about this belated notification: “Early outreach is critical to accessing information and finding additional options.”

DOJ did not dispute Apple’s timeline of events when presented with the company’s statement, but reiterated that Apple had an obligation to help investigators.

“A federal judge has authorized the Department of Justice to access the contents of the dead terrorist’s phones,” said DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi. “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 said it was still helping as much as it could. Company engineers recently spoke with investigators “to provide additional technical assistance,” the firm said.

But the tech giant repeated its warning that calls for guaranteed-access mechanisms in encryption were misguided.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” Apple said. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. … We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users' data.”